The Books Briefing: The Power of Friendship

The influential role of platonic intimacy: Your weekly guide to the best in books


Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to a stranger in 1870 in which she asked the recipient, the writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to read a few of her poems. The letter sparked an enduring correspondence between the two, who became friends before eventually meeting eight years later. The friendship was said to have changed Dickinson, giving her a new confidence, as Martha Ackmann chronicles in her book These Fevered Days. The authors (and friends) Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney, in A Secret Sisterhood, also document literary friendships, focusing on the influential relationships that some famous women writers had with one another.

Platonic relationships, as a subject of and catalyst for writing, present the richness and profundity of the connections we have with nonfamilial, nonromantic companions. Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life follows the friendship of four queer men who support one another while dealing with trauma rooted in their coming of age.

Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, the last of the Neapolitan novels, revisits a pivotal moment in the main characters’ friendship, answering old mysteries while also tracking a new story line about one of the women’s disappearance decades later. Marlena, by Julie Buntin, focuses on the friendship of two teenage girls—one of whom (a troubled soul and adventurer) dies tragically, leaving the other to grapple with the terms of their relationship.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The encounter that revealed a different side of Emily Dickinson
“Dickinson’s letter [to Thomas Wentworth Higginson] set into motion a correspondence with Higginson that lasted almost a quarter of a century. Eight years after writing her initial letter, on August 16, 1870, Dickinson and Higginson finally met face-to-face.”

📚 These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, by Martha Ackmann

An epic from Italy about female friendship and fate
“[Elena] Ferrante’s accomplishment in these novels is to extract an enduring masterpiece from dissolving margins, from the commingling of self and other, creator and created, new and old, real and whatever the opposite of real may be.”

📚 The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante

An astonishing and ambitious chronicle of queer life in America
“The book vigorously defends friendship as a primary relationship, as central as marriage to the making of lives and communities … [The main characters’] relationships with one another challenge categorization.”

📚 A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My brilliant (doomed) friend
Marlena joins a glut of recent novels that pair a retrospective female narrator with an extravagantly charismatic but troubled friend … These novels consider the fierce complexity of female friendship, and the particular agony of innocence that yearns to be shed.”

📚 Marlena, by Julie Buntin

A book about formative literary friendships
“Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney … probe the lives of four literary giants, exploring formative experiences of literary sisterhood that have gone unsung.”

📚 A Secret Sisterhood, by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s reading next is Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler.

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