Why Childhood Friendships Feel So Intoxicating

Works that meditate on the intense bonds forged in our early years: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An illustration of two friends frolicking
Josef Scaylea / Getty; Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

Earlier this month, a new novel by the late French writer Simone de Beauvoir was published. Written nearly 70 years ago by a woman who died 35 years ago, Inseparable follows the devoted, almost romantic friendship between fictionalized versions of de Beauvoir and her real-life childhood best friend, Zaza. De Beauvoir was besotted with Zaza. Her consuming infatuation with the girl seeps through every page—perhaps explaining why the author decided the book was too intimate to publish during her lifetime.

De Beauvoir’s intense adoration of Zaza may seem unique, but the experience of having such an intoxicating childhood bond is not unusual. As the journalist Lydia Denworth writes in an excerpt of her book Friendship published in The Atlantic, “The intensity of feelings generated by friendship—or loneliness—in childhood and adolescence is by design.” Literature is filled with tales about this type of youthful passion. Anne of Green Gables calls these bonds “bosom friends”—relationships one holds close to the heart. The author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels capture a complex and turbulent portrait of this kind of entanglement in the draw between its two protagonists, Elena and Lila. Elena is entirely in Lila’s thrall; she feeds off her vibrance, imitates her, and kicks off her writing career under Lila’s inspiration. At the same time, Elena is deeply jealous—a layer that only fuels their interdependence.

The writer Julie Buntin, who herself had an overwhelming and exhilarating childhood friendship, also considers these types of relationships in her debut novel, Marlena. The work both conjures the fervor of young crushes and critiques the tragic endings they tend to come to in literature. De Beauvoir’s friend died young, as does the titular character of Buntin’s book. In this context, Marlena prompts the reader to ask: Can homages to these fierce, entrancing young people exist without romanticizing the sad fates that seem to befall them?

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Simone de Beauvoir

Denise Bellon / AKG images

The philosopher who took happiness seriously

“Unrequited love, embarrassing as it can be, is, in de Beauvoir’s thinking, a way of being unconstrained, because loving the other ‘genuinely’ is to love him ‘in that freedom by which he escapes. Love is then renunciation of all possession.’”

illustration of two children with their arms around each other and standing on top of a large human brain

Paul Spella / The Atlantic

The outsize influence of your middle-school friends

“Friendship has real power for kids. [One developmental psychologist] thinks that friendship may even begin to resemble an attachment relationship like what children initially have with parents.”

illustration of the concept of growing up through reading books

Kevin VQ Dam

What rereading childhood books teaches adults about themselves

“For many years, the main draw [of Anne of Green Gables] was Anne’s love interest, Gilbert Blythe, whom I had a crush on. But now I read it more for the compelling female friendships.”

illustration of two girls

Xanthe Bouma

The hypnotic genius of Elena Ferrante

“The feelings that flow between Elena and Lila are rigorously ambivalent. Every reaction comes accompanied by its shadow … This oscillation between lightness and darkness gives their friendship a depth and intensity too palpable to seem imagined.”

Two friends wade in the Frio Canyon River near San Antonio, Texas, in 1970

Marc St. Gil / Environmental Protection Agency

My brilliant (doomed) friend

“The value of novels like Marlena and The Girls and The Strays is how insightfully they capture the complex intensity of girlhood that can’t see yet how exquisitely vulnerable it is. All three protagonists are seduced by danger, and the thrill of a girl who is confidently bad, and whose badness represents a new kind of awakening and freedom. But all three, too, know deep down that they’re safe from the worst excesses that threaten their friends … These are, essentially, bildungsromans where one young woman comes of age, but at a profound cost to another.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is The Loneliest Americans, by Jay Caspian Kang.

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