Top 10 novels about toxic friendships | Charlotte Northedge

Complex attachments mixing intimacy and deception can decide whole lives, and have inspired novelists from William Thackeray to Elena Ferrante

Romantic love and family dynamics might be the staples of literature, but fictional friendships have provided readers with some of the most enduring, and memorable, pairings – and none more so than the toxic variety. Complex love/hate relationships have inspired novelists from Thackeray to Ferrante, and are the engine that drives many recent thrillers, including Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature.

In my debut novel, The House Guest, 25-year-old Kate strikes up an unlikely friendship with Della, a life coach a decade older. Their uneven alliance is put to the test when Della invites Kate to join her family for a summer in France, cutting the younger woman off from everyone she knows as events spiral out of her control.

Put under the microscope, friendships are uniquely fascinating – free from familial duty or, usually, from sexual desire. We choose our friends, and yet they can have great sway over our lives, holding up a mirror, providing support, but also exerting an influence that can be hard to unravel. These novels of toxic friendship explore much more than just cruelty or manipulation – their characters are caught up in a tangle of co-dependency and intimacy, affection and deception.

1. Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
When painter Elaine returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work, she is assailed by memories from her past and the friendships that blighted her childhood, in particular with Cordelia, who taunts and bullies her “as if she’s driven by the urge to see how far she can go”. But who really held the power in that relationship, and what gives early friendships their unique hold over our lives? Atwood explores these destructive dynamics with customary insight and brilliance. As Elaine reflects, years after she has lost touch with Cordelia, even though they have tormented one another, “We are like the twins in old fables, each of whom has been given half a key.”

2. The Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels tell the story of another pair of friends whose lives are inextricably entwined over decades. From their poverty-stricken childhood in postwar Naples, to their diverging paths through education, work, marriage and children, Elena and Lila are bound together in a feverish dance of competition and compassion, jealousy and love. More complex than toxic, their relationship nonetheless brings them both misery as well as solace. The pair may have spent their whole lives locked in rivalry, but it is Elena who gets the final word, as she sits down to write their story: “We’ll see who wins this time.”

3. Sula by Toni Morrison
In Morrison’s 1973 novel, it is a man who causes the rupture between childhood friends Nel and Sula. Growing up in Medallion, a fictional black community in Ohio, after the first world war, the two girls are inseparable. Though she’s very different in nature to the transgressive Sula, for Nel, “Talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself”. Life is hard for women in Medallion, yet while the friendship survives a number of traumas, it is Sula’s sexual betrayal of Nel that causes the irreparable rift. It is only looking back later in life that Nel reassesses what has been the most important relationship of her life.

Regent’s Park Open Air theatre’s 2011 adaptation of Lord of the Flies.
Friends becoming enemies … Regent’s Park Open Air theatre’s 2011 adaptation of Lord of the Flies. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

4. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Boys have toxic friendships too, of course, and in Golding’s 1954 debut, the young survivors of a plane crash first form alliances, and then turn on each other, in a classic exploration of group dynamics and social hierarchies. Through the now classic tale of Ralph, Jack, Piggy and Simon, Golding reveals just how quickly the social contract can break down under pressure, how friends can become rivals and finally sworn enemies, with disastrous results.

5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Tartt’s bestselling first novel tells the story of another murderous group of friends, this time pushed to the edge by the secret, ritualistic behaviour of their university clique. When he joins a select group of classics students at a Vermont college, Richard is captivated. But as we know from the outset of the novel, one of their number will ultimately die. Tartt’s skill is in building up the pace and tension as she unravels how these privileged college students drive each other to destruction.

6. The Girls by Emma Cline
The group here are led astray by a charismatic leader, in the form of Manson figure Russell Hadrick. It is 1969, and restless 14-year-old Evie is lured into his gang of followers by the captivating Suzanne, both her enabler and ultimately her saviour. While many authors and film-makers have attempted to capture Manson’s seductive charm, it is in evoking the heady world of the girls around him that the power of Cline’s novel lies.

7. Passing by Nella Larsen
First published in 1929, Larsen’s novel centres on the friendship between Irene and Clare, who grew up together in Harlem. When they are reunited as adults, Irene is dismayed to discover that her beautiful friend Clare is now “passing” as white, and is prepared to tolerate her husband’s racism. Irene, meanwhile, has married locally and is part of the Negro Welfare League. When Clare begins to spend more time with the family, Irene becomes suspicious of her friend’s motives. Why has Clare been drawn back into the culture she abandoned, and will the destructive jealousy between the pair lead one of them to betrayal?

8. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
Surely one of the archetypal manipulators, Becky Sharp uses her considerably less charismatic friend Amelia Sedley to secure a place in a society from which she would otherwise be excluded. Determined to marry well and escape her penniless beginnings, Becky navigates her way through the upper classes, with little thought for her friend’s feelings – or anyone else’s for that matter. An early example of the toxic friend as understudy and ultimately usurper.

Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) in the 1999 film of The Talented Mr Ripley.
Copycat killer … Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow), Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) in the 1999 film of The Talented Mr Ripley. Photograph: Paramount/Allstar

9. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Even more ruthless and amoral is Tom Ripley, though in Highsmith’s 1955 novel the friend he latches on to is the far more glamorous and attractive Dickie Greenleaf. As Tom is drawn ever deeper into Dickie’s world, he becomes jealous and obsessed. Another usurper, Tom starts by copying the richer, more upper class Dickie’s hair, clothes and expressions – and ends by taking his life.

10. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
On the face of it, Sheba’s friendship with fellow teacher and confidante Barbara is her salvation. When Sheba begins an affair with a 15-year-old pupil, the much older and solitary Barbara offers more than just a shoulder to cry on – she eventually moves in with Sheba, shielding her from the world. But what are Barbara’s motives in helping her disgraced friend – and who, ultimately, is in control of the story? A modern classic of toxic friendship and betrayal.


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Contributor

Charlotte Northedge

The GuardianTramp

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