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Ten Essential Fictional Frenemies

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“For our purposes, suffice it to say that centuries of limited access to power have made [women] experts in relationship-building.” These are lines from Esther Perel’s landmark book, Mating in Captivity, but you could almost imagine them opening a Jane Austen novel. For one, Perel’s cadence calls to mind Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” but also: Austen’s heroines are largely at the mercy of the landholding male characters, and indeed, if they are to wield any influence at all, they must—at the very least—learn to play nicely with others.
I was thinking a lot about this directive to “play nice,” as well as Austen’s books, when I was writing Wildcat—a novel propelled via the dynamic of two friends who fall out with one another. The word “frenemy” didn’t exist during Austen’s day, but I’m sure she would have understood the concept instantly.
It’s not as if men don’t have frenemies—I’m including one sort-of example below—it’s just that historically, they haven’t needed a friend as much as women have. And here, I think, is where things become even more interesting. Because sometimes the fact that we need a friend to access a, b, or c, is enough in itself to harbor resentment. But then other times, I think a frenemy can be born out of a true, deep connection with another human. You love this person although it’s not romantic. And then when this person hurts you, either intentionally or otherwise, us modern-day humans haven’t quite figured out the protocol. There is no “Frenemies” section in the greeting card aisle at CVS. But here are 10 novels that can maybe make us feel a bit more understood.
1. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Let’s start lightly. In Rooney’s first book, we watch the tension unfold as our narrator, Frances, navigates both a fake friendship with an older, richer, much more professionally established woman with a hot, neglected husband as well as a dear friendship with a woman named Bobbi, who is also an ex-lover.

2. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

I loved this prickly, confusing book. Are Sarah and Karen frenemies or are they the same person, split into two different characters? I don’t know! But the book is worth mentioning here for one of the best lines about the danger of letting someone in close; when Karen and Sarah lock eyes early in the morning before school, Choi writes: “And right away her gaze went hard with the anger we always feel at the person who spoils our idea of ourself.” Oof.

3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Written in 1905, this book felt as fresh as ever when I read it in 2021. The stakes couldn’t be higher for our protagonist, Lily Bart, especially in terms of navigating one’s female friendships. Without financial independence, Lily needs to marry well to survive. Or at the very least, she needs to not piss off the rich women in her social circle.

4. Swing Time by Zadie Smith

To call the narrator’s childhood friend, Tracey, a frenemy feels like a slight, but at the same time, the sprawling friendship begs the question: when you know someone for long enough, aren’t they bound to become an enemy at some point or another? The girls first meet in a dance class and are drawn to each other immediately, only our narrator quickly realizes that Tracey is talented and she is not. Decades later, Tracey is harassing the narrator’s dying mother, and while contemplating a response, our narrator declares: “The power she has over me is the same as it has always been, judgment, and it goes beyond words.”

5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Similarly to Swing Time, it feels almost wrong to refer to the deep, long-suffering friendship between Ferrante’s Lenù and Lila as one of frenemies, but I blame this more on our culture’s way of flattening complicated relationships. Lenù and Lila love each other, hurt each other, and push each other to be better people than they would have been on their own.

6. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Just thinking about the arc of the relationship between Ishiguro’s Kathy and Ruth makes my heart ache. Ruth is essentially a classic mean girl, and yet because of the position she’s put in (I won’t spoil anything in case you haven’t read it), she’s also incredibly vulnerable and needy. She needs her best friend, Kathy, and Kathy, even though Ruth is not a great friend, needs her back.

7. Old School by Tobias Wolff

Maybe one definition of a frenemy could be: friends who compete against one another. Though there’s seemingly less emotional turmoil between these male characters than the female ones in the previous books mentioned, Wolff’s male narrator feels pretty uncomfortable when his story is chosen as a winner in a contest over his roommate’s. “Our balance was fragile enough anyway, with so many complications of ambition and envy and pretense.”

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Though the story is set in the early 1800s, the way that Caroline Bingley tacitly weaponizes her higher social status against our heroine Elizabeth Bennet feels timeless. And maybe we can’t even say that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a friend of Elizabeth’s, but she does have her over to dinner before completely eviscerating her at a later date when she hears the rumor that Darcy is itching to propose (again). Ah, so good it hurts!

9. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Can you be frenemies and also relatives? I think so, and will use Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch and her older, often flabbergasted spinster cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, as an example. It’s one thing when Charlotte busts up Lucy’s kiss with George in an Italian meadow of violets, but then she gossips about it to a novelist, who puts the scene in her book!

10. Emma by Jane Austen

I saw Clueless so many times before I actually read Emma, so that Austen’s Emma and Harriet are seemingly entwined with Amy Heckerling’s Cher and Tai. Either way, this was the fictional friendship I thought of the most while writing Wildcat. Emma and Harriet’s friendship is born of a specific order. Emma is the leader and Harriet is a happy follower. This is fine at first, but what happens when the leader loses her footing and the follower loses a bit of belief?

Image Credit: OpenClipArt

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

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