8 Books About Cross-Generational Friendships
Diane Zinna recommends books about connections that transcend age
When I was a young adjunct, I bonded with a student in my class over our shared experiences of grief. A decade separated us in age, but we seemed to understand each other by the timeline of our lives. If you plotted our experiences on a line—the first death of a loved one; the first experience of trauma; the first time we ventured out on our own; the first experience of depression—our bubbles on that timeline all seemed to match up.
In my novel, The All-Night Sun, I write about how a similar friendship begins for 28-year-old college professor Lauren and 18-year-old Siri, how it buds in the light of sharing truths and how it crumples up when lies start to leak in. They are each at an age when people make decisions about the parts of themselves they want to carry forward in life and what they wish to shed. It’s only when Lauren impulsively decides to accompany Siri home to Sweden for a summer trip that the awkward, motherly conversations Lauren attempts with Siri’s friends make their age difference feel stark. “What a lifetime you can live—or not live—in ten years’ space,” Lauren says. It feels at any moment the other person could slip away, back into her own time. But their early story-sharing and the ways they’ve been honest with each other have made double knots all along their timeline, and that bond is strong.
What does it mean to have a true friendship with someone of a different age? I think the authors of the books below show us it’s about sharing our stories in honest ways. It’s about being present with another person in a way that feels like being present to yourself—as you knew yourself once, as you might be someday.
The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle
In this 2020 debut novel, Lucy is recovering from breast cancer when she becomes friends with two older women who gather and preserve octopuses that swamp the Tasmanian coast. While saving an octopus that is pulling itself across a road dividing the ocean, Lucy is hit by a car, and her injuries force her to come to terms with her body all the more. As she heals, Lucy has a tangle of octopuses tattooed across her scarred chest, and her relationship with Flo becomes a shared respite from loneliness and loss. With emotional and rhythmic sections written from the perspective of octopuses and seals, this novel shows us all searching for connection while unknowingly being carried along by the ever-present current of it.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Set in an opulent Parisian apartment building, this novel’s narration alternates between that of a distraught and precocious 12-year-old named Paloma and the building’s concierge, a reclusive autodidact named Renée. As they share with us the day-to-day of their isolated existences, the things that bring them small measures of happiness, and their shared love of Japanese culture, we are convinced of how good they would be for each other if only they knew each other. It is a joy then, when Paloma finally befriends Renée and we see their spirits expand in each other’s presence. (This novel also includes the most exciting and frightening argument against comma splices I’ve ever read.)
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
I loved this book especially for its short stories of young Sophie and her grandmother, a real friend who quietly honors the ways Sophie shows unconditional love. They are each other’s only companions in the world, a world that stretches in all directions around them from their secluded cottage on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. When I was reading this book, I repeated the stories to my daughter each night before bed. I thought they were sweet, but she said they made her sad. I think she was picking up how much goes unspoken—about the way they wound up together on the island after the mother’s death, and how Sophia’s pain comes out of her in little bursts.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Ask people for a book about intergenerational friendship, and they will shout the title of this beloved book at you, or else the title of his novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. Backman regularly gifts us with stories of people of all ages putting in effort to be truly present with one another. I especially found the story of stubborn Ove and strong-hearted Parvaneh to be a call to love. It made me feel empathy for a person in my life I didn’t realize I’d been holding it from.
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata
In this deftly conjured novel of bubble universes and dopplegängers, people are united by a beloved lost manuscript in post-Katrina New Orleans. I felt deeply for Saul, who we see at the start mourning his grandfather Benjamin’s death. While trying to piece together an understanding of his grandfather, Saul discovers his own best friend, Javier, had a deep relationship with him of his own. When his grandfather met Javier for the first time, he called Javier a “luftmensch,” a Yiddish word for someone who lives in “a cloud of possibility.” Saul is jealous of that but comes to understand that his friend and grandfather were drawn together because they were people insistent on hearing and saving people’s complicated stories.
Author Michael Zapata shared with me that he wrote this novel for a dear friend of his, Matt Davis, who passed away in 2003. Matt was a seminal figure in the Afro-Punk movement and the first person Michael ever knew to be a true artist. He was also the only reader Michael ever had in mind for this novel, and hearing that made the friendships on the page feel all the more poignant.
The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg
Maddie is an isolated, bullied teenager yearning to break away from her father’s dark cloud, a girl whose “hope has gotten tired.” Arthur is a recent widow who visits the graveyard every day at lunchtime and insists on seeing the best in people, even inventing detailed, compassionate stories for the people buried near his wife’s grave. When Maddie and Arthur come together, the novel becomes a story about loving people well in life and also after death. It’s a meditation on the mysteriousness of how one becomes an outsider and the beauty of found families.
Augustown by Kei Miller
In a poor Jamaican town, an out-of-control teacher, believing himself disrespected, cuts off a young child’s dreadlocks in front of the class. Back in town, Ma Taffy, the child’s great aunt, can feel that something terrible has happened, and soon the whole town is electric with demanding justice. Miller’s poetic language and assured structure allow us to float back and forth in time and connects us with the stories of this Rastafarian community over generations. Long after I finished the book, I found myself thinking about the friendship that develops between Miss G and Mrs. G. They are two very different women who believed in each other but never had the chance to share their most meaningful connections aloud.
All the Broken People by Leah Konen
No book list about friendship is complete without the story of one that goes terribly wrong. In this thriller, Lucy flees her old life in Brooklyn for the small town of Woodstock to put distance between herself and her abusive partner. Like my character of Lauren in The All-Night Sun, Lucy has long been grieving the deaths of her parents alone, and when a kindly older couple, artist John and his wife Vera, befriend her, her fast devotion makes her far too willing to look past the cloud of suspicion that follows them.