8 Books About Childhood Friendships Throughout the Years

Zak Salih, author of ‘Let’s Get Back to the Party,’ on stories about childhood pals—and the adults they become

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
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The lives we lead, if we’re lucky, are filled with friends. Best friends and fair-weather friends, lifelong friends and friends with benefits. Friends we’d prefer as lovers, friends we’d prefer as just acquaintances. Friends who grow apart: emotionally, geographically. Friends who change on us (or perhaps it’s we who change on them). As social creatures, our friends help us make it through the world. They’re a resource made all the more precious by the current pandemic’s social restrictions.

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My debut novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party, is about two estranged childhood friends who reconnect as adults only to realize they have entirely different perspectives on what their friendship meant. One man cares too much about it; the other man couldn’t be bothered to care at all. What kind of havoc does time wreak on memories of old friends?

Here are a few cherished novels that, in their own nuanced ways, offer some ideas.

Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula by Toni Morrison

The adolescent friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright is the beating heart of Morrison’s slim and powerful novel. A deadly accident (as girls) and a betrayal (as women) strain their relationship over the years. The beauty of this novel is in its concluding moments, which suggest that even in death—and after—one’s first thoughts turn to our closest childhood friend.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kathy H., Ruth, and Tommy are friends at an English boarding school that doubles as a factory for clones intended to be organ donors. The sci-fi elements of Ishiguro’s novel take a backseat to the nuanced friendship between these three teenagers, whose love and care for one another, even in the face of unavoidable fates, are proof of the souls in these engineered bodies.  

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Jealousy and envy spoil the friendship between two mixed-race girls, the unnamed narrator and Tracey: both of them aspiring tap dancers, only one of whom actually meets with a successful career. What results are some bitter betrayals and reckless confessions brought on by spite, and a story that becomes one of frenemies trying to reconcile their relationship.

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware

Rusty Brown by Chris Ware

The work Chris Ware does with time and memory in this stunning graphic novel makes it one of the most moving reading experiences I’ve ever had, an experience compounded by the awkward relationship between the title character and the kind-hearted Chalky White. By contrasting Rusty and Chalky as school-age children and adult men, Ware illustrates the ways friends grow and change—and don’t.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

“[Seldon] was the stump, and until he was taken to live with his mother’s married sister in Brooklyn ten months later, I was the prosthesis.” Just as compelling as the vision of a country under President Charles Lindbergh is the narrator’s relationship with his childhood friend Seldon Wishnow, who ends up bearing the terrible brunt of life as a Jew in fascist America with the fictional Philip Roth as witness.

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

In Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel, the artist Elaine Risley sees a retrospective of her paintings as an opportunity to process her childhood relationships: with her brother, with her friends, and particularly with a new girl at school named Cordelia. Through flashbacks, we not only learn the ways strained friendships shape us as people, but the ways in which they can build motifs that appear (consciously or unconsciously) in the art we create.

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

A story about the trauma of child abuse written with incredible tenderness, Alexander Chee’s debut novel centers on the relationship between Fee and Peter. Both boys meet as members of a school choir, where the nefarious behavior of the choir director overshadows their young love. One’s heart aches to think of how these boys would have turned out had they been spared such suffering.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Friendship in a dangerous world is also the subject of Colson Whitehead’s most recent novel, set at a reform school where abuse (physical and psychological) runs rampant. Elwood Curtis and Jack Turner have competing ideas of what it takes to survive in a world set against you. The novel’s surprising and emotionally satisfying ending, set decades later, proves just how much our childhood friends can shape us.

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