Five Best Books About Friendship

From a Wall Street Journal story by Derek B. Miller headlined “Five Best Stories of Friendship”:

A Prayer for Owen Meany
By John Irving (1989)

1. I can still hear Owen Meany’s voice in my head. The sensation is wistful. “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is a book about a time past in my native New England. It is a coming-of-age story about youth: lived, lived out and cut short. Owen’s voice is a bit shrill, a bit loud, coming from a body a bit too small. John Wheelwright is Owen’s best friend and they grow up in the kind of communal, picturesque and hallowed New England village that Stephen King regularly destroys. But there are undercurrents here, too: John and Owen’s friendship is as strained as it is meaningful. Owen hit the baseball that killed John’s mother. Owen is also convinced he is “God’s instrument” and—as it happens—he might be. How can a friendship endure and even grow in the presence of such forces? The answer is that it simply does. Like John, I love Owen and I still miss him. I also miss his stuffed armadillo, which remains one of the best props in the history of literature, right up there with Yorick’s skull.

My Brilliant Friend
By Elena Ferrante (2011)
(Trans. by Ann Goldstein, 2012)

2. It is hard to imagine the hellscape that was Italy immediately after World War II. It had suffered Mussolini from 1922 until 1943. It was bombed by the Allies. Thousands of women and children (and some men) were raped and many murdered by French Expeditionary Forces during the so-called Marocchinate. Hundreds of thousands of Italian men had already been shipped off to slavery by the Germans. The population was terrorized. Crime was everywhere. Into this uneasy postwar calm Elena Ferrante sets a story of two bold, willful and smart peasant girls who become unexpected friends. If John Irving’s New Hampshire is an idyllic setting that falls to tragedy, Ms. Ferrante’s Naples is a postapocalyptic city where love, devotion, respect, resilience and pride break through the rubble with the force of nature. Here, we feel that friendship is as essential to us, and unavoidable, as survival itself. And often as hard.

By Sándor Márai (1942)
(Trans. by Carol Brown Janeway, 2001)

3. In 1996 I was living in Budapest. The Cold War was over, Hungary was taking its first steps toward NATO and the European Union, and the country was trying to discover what was left of itself after more than four decades under the black boot of Soviet occupation. One part of its still-beating heart was in the writings of Sándor Márai (1900-1989), who had refused to be published in his native Hungary after the Communists took over and so long as they were still in charge. Consequently, Márai died, in the words of the British author Tibor Fischer, “old, ill, poor, alone, having written to the very last.” First published in Hungary, before the arrival of the Soviets, as “A gyertyák csonkig égnek” (“Candles Burn Until the End”), “Embers” tells the story of two old men, once close friends at the military academy, who meet for the first time after 41 years. Henrik, a retired general, invites Konrad to dinner. Konrad accepts. Henrik berates Konrad for having had an affair with his wife. What he wants to know, though, is whether Konrad had really intended to shoot him during a hunting trip and, vitally, whether his wife had known. It is a story filled with driving truths that Márai transforms from philosophy to drama and back again: We still love people long after they have made us suffer; and our need to know the truth never ends.

Marley & Me
By John Grogan (2005)

4. Love may never end, but friendships do, sometimes by death, whereby friendship doesn’t so much end as stop. When the death is of a beloved pet—a pet that made us nuts, but also turned us into better people—we feel like a piece of ourselves has died too. “Marley & Me” is not high literature. Instead, it is hilariously funny, a joy to read and comical in the extreme. All of which makes the end more crushing. The book is a celebration of our friendship with dogs; friendships that can be as meaningful as those we have with people. Dogs genuinely love us. They sense us. They have moods. Their eyes continuously talk and they can’t help it.

Horton Hears a Who!
Dr. Seuss (1954)

5. Poor Horton. Friendship comes easily to him but he wears it like a crown of thorns. Horton is an elephant who lives in the Jungle of Nool and has ears as big as his heart. One day he hears what no one else can: a tiny voice calling for help. It turns out that a community of Whos live on a tiny speck of dust and they’re in trouble. Horton comes to their rescue but has to face down the cynics who think he’s lying or insane. In the end, he’s able to help the Who-mayor rally the Whos (including the smallest of them all) into making enough noise to bring the other jungle animals to their senses and realize that Horton was right. For Horton, friendship, loyalty and kindness are all choices. Doing the right thing matters. At the center of this little children’s story lies a refrain with enough philosophy on which to build a civilization: “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

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