Friendship can be such a complicated thing, yet it’s essential to our happiness and sense of belonging. I’m an introvert who needs a lot of alone time to feel like myself, but even I know how important it is to spend time with my friends. Romantic and familial relationships are the ones that get the most focus, yet friendship can sustain us even when our partners or family fail us.
This post was born when I was looking through my recent reads on Goodreads and realized how many books have friendship at the center, so today, I’m sharing 20 titles that show the good and bad in friendships. The books on this list celebrate or explore friends in all their complexities and shortcomings. I hope you’re inspired to pick up one of these books and to maybe even text that friend you haven’t talked to in a while.
The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna
Bonding with a charismatic student during a summer trip to Sweden, a writing teacher at a Washington, D.C. college discovers the student’s dark nature during a Midsommar’s Eve seaside camping trip that takes an ominous turn.
The first book on this list is about a codependent friendship that gets incredibly messy. I appreciate novels about complex women, which I found in this underrated gem from Diane Zinna. Thanks to the setting, this book makes for a great summer read.
The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks by Shauna Robinson
When Maggie Banks arrives in Bell River to run her best friend’s struggling bookstore, she expects to sell bestsellers to her small-town clientele. But running a bookstore in a town with a famously bookish history isn’t easy. Bell River’s literary society insists on keeping the bookstore stuck in the past, and Maggie is banned from selling anything written this century. So, when a series of mishaps suddenly tip the bookstore toward ruin, Maggie will have to get creative to keep the shop afloat.
I’m usually out if I hear a book described as “heartwarming,” but my love of books about books drew me to this novel anyway. I tend to prefer darker stories, yet I was utterly delighted by The Banned Bookshop of Maggie Banks. Seeing a diverse community come together in the name of literacy and the freedom to read made for a feel-good and satisfying story.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Alice, a novelist, encounters Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend Eileen is recovering from a break-up and starts flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood.
This book got more mixed reviews than Sally Rooney’s earlier novels, but I loved this one. The interactions of the four protagonists, specifically the relationship between the two women, were consistently engaging, thanks to Rooney’s excellent prose. Readers more interested in characters than plot will enjoy this book the most.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Two young couples, Sid and Charity and Larry and Sally, from different backgrounds–East and West, rich and poor–befriend each other in 1937 Madison, Wisconsin.
Crossing to Safety is a lovely character study that explores marriage and friendship. (In some ways, it reminds me of Stoner by John Williams because of its excellent simplicity.) When I read this book, I didn’t love it at first, but I still remember these characters and how Stegner made me feel, so I knew it earned a place on this list.
Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet
After walking from New York to Arizona to recover from a failed relationship, Gil discovers new neighbors in the glass-walled house next-door and finds his life meshing with theirs.
I read Dinosuars toward the end of 2022 and promptly recommended it to friends I knew would appreciate it. Like Beautiful World, Where Are You, this novel is a character study that takes relationships seriously, both long-term friendships and new ones. Lydia Millet shows how friendship can give us roots when we’re just wandering through life.
Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
A tale loosely inspired by Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor traces the intense friendship and literary bond shared by two mid-20th-century New York writers through an exchange of letters that explores their respective writing forms and beliefs about faith, passion and the nature of acceptable sacrifice.
Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite writers, so I knew I’d love this book before I read a paragraph. Thankfully, I was right. Books and creativity can unite people in powerful ways, which this novel beautifully explores.
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Distancing herself from an intense best friend who inspired her scientific ambitions before divulging a life-changing secret, Kit competes for a dream research job and finds herself in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
Megan Abbott writes suspense so well. I keep coming back to her work because it’s atmospheric and surprising; I can feel the tension her words create. Give Me Your Hand shows what happens when friendship turns into rivalry. I read this book several years ago, but I still remember how unsettled it made me feel.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
A novel set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris follows the director of a Chicago art gallery and a woman looking for her estranged daughter in Paris who both struggle to come to terms with the ways AIDS has affected their lives.
The Great Believers is an outstanding novel about all kinds of relationships, but friendship is at its heart. I’ve read many books over the years that didn’t stick with me, but the characters Rebecca Makkai created still live in my head. After reading the excellent I Have Some Questions for You, Makkai has become one of my favorite novelists.
The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
Reconnecting with a group of childhood friends after one of them committed suicide, Mikey needs to confront dark secrets from his past involving his father to assess how much of this is impacting his current emotional stupor.
Making and keeping friends often seems more challenging as I get older, which is one of the reasons I like The Gunners so much. The story is about a group of friends in their 30s, and I appreciate the exploration of adult friendship and the changes that occur as we age.
The Life Council: 10 Friends Every Woman Needs by Laura Tremaine
Author and podcaster Laura Tremaine offers women a new way to think about friendships and practical ways to find, build, and keep the right friend for every season of their lives.
Laura Tremaine consistently provides wise guidance on friendship, whether on her podcast, Instagram stories, or books. I’ve learned much from Laura about being a better friend. She writes without judgment or shame, gently encouraging her audience to give their friendships the care they deserve.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Moving to New York to pursue creative ambitions, four former classmates share decades marked by love, loss, addiction and haunting elements from a brutal childhood.
A Little Life wins the award for the most devastating novel I’ve ever read. It took me days to mentally move on from this book. It’s bleak and heartbreaking, but that makes the friendships even more powerful.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
It’s 1988. Frank owns a music shop, jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre–as long as it’s vinyl. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need. Then into this shop arrives Ilse Brauchmann, and Frank falls for this curious woman.
If you just finished A Little Life and need a pick-me-up, try The Music Shop. This book has some romance, but my favorite part of the story is the relationships between the townspeople.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
The year: 1988. The place: Charleston, South Carolina. Abby and Gretchen have been BFFs since fifth grade, but now that they’re in high school, Gretchen seems different. After a series of bizarre events, Abby realizes that Gretchen has a demon living inside her — and it’s up to Abby to rescue her friend.
And now for another novel set in the 1980s! I’m not entirely sure what inspired me to pick up My Best Friend’s Exorcism since it differs from what I usually read, but I’m so glad I encountered this wild story. Grady Hendrix writes about female friendship incredibly well.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
A reunion with two childhood friends–Ruth and Tommy–draws Kath and her companions on a nostalgic odyssey into the supposedly idyllic years of their lives at Hailsham, an isolated private school in the serene English countryside, and a dramatic confrontation with the truth about their childhoods and about their lives in the present.
Never Let Me Go is one of the most emotional friendship stories I’ve read. This novel is the type of book that could be discussed for hours. Ishiguro raises interesting questions in his work, and this book is no exception.
Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson
Twenty years after secretly causing panic in her hometown through the written word and artwork, along with a fellow loner named Zeke, famous author, mom and wife Frances Eleanor Budge gets a call that brings her past rushing back, threatening to upend everything.
Common obsessions make it easy to bond with certain people, and that’s what serves as the glue for this novel’s protagonists. I recently saw this book at a thrift store and was appalled that someone got rid of it because I love it so much.
The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin
Daniel, a troubled man who lives alone, detached from the world, passes his time filling out contest applications and counting ceiling tiles, until his attachment to Clarissa and Teddy helps him rediscover the outside world.
This slim book is such a joy, especially on audio. Of course, since Steve Martin writes it, it has moments of humor, but The Pleasure of My Company also has a lot of heart. Of all the books on this list, this friendship might be my favorite.
Providence by Caroline Kepnes
A tale of two childhood best friends—part love story, part detective story and part supernatural thriller—follows Jon, a boy with a strange power that can harm those he most loves, as he aims to protect his friend, Chloe, from it.
Providence is super weird, and I’ve never heard another person talk about it, but I stand by my adoration. I have such love for my childhood friends that I can’t help but root for friendships that got their start in those early years.
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Returing to Mexico City to attend her father’s funeral, Meche runs into an old friend, with whom she discovered she could cast spells using music, reviving buried memories that cause her to question her estrangement from her loved ones.
Music has been a big part of my life, which is one of the reasons I like this story about its power. This book recently got rereleased, and I’m happy it gets another chance to shine and find an audience.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, this is a dazzling and intricately imagined novel that examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love. Yes, it is a love story, but it is not one you have read before.
When I started reading this book, I worried it couldn’t live up to the hype. Thankfully, it does. Gabrielle Zevin has written an unforgettable story about friendship and all its difficulties and triumphs.
Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois
Pulled back into her past when a posthumous work needs a publisher, reconnecting her with an old friend, successful book editor and new mom Emily is forced to reckon with her decisions, her failures and what kind of creative life she wants to lead.
Vintage Contemporaries focuses on two friendships: one between peers and one between a woman and the friend of her mother. As someone with intergenerational friendships that are dear to me, I love seeing that type of bond represented in fiction.
All summaries are from NoveList.
What books would you add to this list? What’s the best book a friend has ever recommended to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!