Female friendship in Zadie Smith and Ferrante

Feature by Alice Horne | 04 Nov 2016

Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time proves that fictional female friends are in with the popular crowd

Complicated female relationships seem to be everywhere in contemporary literature. Take this year’s Man Booker longlist as a snapshot: in Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, the titular character obsesses over fellow prison employee Rebecca, while Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton and Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk both examine fraught relationships between mother and daughter. But the best-known unorthodox friendship in literature today is surely that of Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila in the Italian author’s Neapolitan Novels series. 

A far cry from traditional literary heroines whose primary concerns are men, marriage and babies, none of these relationships fit into straightforward categories, nor would you particularly want to be friends with any of the characters. And that’s the point. After all, it’s what makes these stories so addictively readable.

Published in November, Zadie Smith’s fifth novel Swing Time is the most recent in a flurry of books portraying female relationships with refreshing, if sometimes excruciating, honesty. The story centres around two girls who grow up dreaming of being dancers. But while their aspirations and lives drift apart, Tracey is always the benchmark of the unnamed narrator’s successes.

Like Ferrante’s Elena and Lila, theirs is far from a healthy relationship. Rather than supporting each other, the girls are easily drawn into comparison and competition: Tracey gets into dance school, while the narrator is dismissed early on as being unforgivably flat-footed; as adults, Tracey flaunts her lively young family in front of the self-consciously childless narrator. But the intensity of their childhood intimacy prevents the narrator from ever fully breaking free of Tracey’s negative presence – even when, as a personal assistant to an international popstar, she spends most of her time in North America and West Africa, thousands of miles away from her north-west London home.

Turbulent friendships

So unforgettable are Ferrante’s characters that it’s hard not to make quick comparisons between Elena and Lila, and Smith’s narrator and Tracey. First off, both pairs compete creatively: for Smith it’s in their dancing, and for Ferrante it’s their writing. Like many childhood friendships, the basis of both is that the girls come from similar backgrounds. In Swing Time, the narrator and Tracey gravitate towards each other as the only “brown girls” in their dance class, while Ferrante’s narrator Elena and her friend Lila are both bright and promising pupils in a poor and violently patriarchal neighbourhood in 1950s Naples.

This subtle doubling lends itself to compulsive comparison, as each narrator sees the different paths she could have chosen, leaving her unable to understand herself without the other: 'inside was the struggle to leave her, the old conviction that without her nothing truly important would happen to me, and yet I felt the need to get away' (Ferrante, The Story of a New Name). 

In both friendships their closeness is undeniable, seemingly inevitable, even if it’s not always wanted. Certainly, they aren’t always very kind to each other. One of Elena’s earliest memories is that Lila deliberately pushes her doll, Tina, through a cellar grate 'and let[s] her fall into the darkness.' Meanwhile, at the climactic point of Swing Time, hinted at in the prologue, Tracey abuses her closeness to the narrator in very publicly exposing an embarrassing childhood incident, claiming that it shows who the narrator really is.

Trapped by childhood?

This idea of really knowing someone is another quietly disconcerting consequence of the lingering childhood friend. No matter how many life changes and experiences the narrator goes through – spanning seven decades and four books in Elena’s case – their closest friend always seems ready to reject change or success as pretentious or meaningless, perhaps out of a desire to limit them to their early lives (in which Lila and Tracey showed more promise).

However, while the success of both narrators’ careers takes them away from Naples and London – albeit on very different scales – Lila and Tracey are seen strictly within the limits of their home town, even solely in their childhood neighbourhood. Place is important to Ferrante and Smith as writers, and both of their narrators just as often try – and fail – to escape from their home towns as they try and fail to distance themselves from Lila and Tracey.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Smith has written about a complicated relationship between two women. In her previous novel NW, Smith moves between different times and perspectives to show childhood friends Leah and Natalie growing up together, forming and re-forming their identities in relation to each other throughout adolescence and adulthood.

Unlike NW, however, in Swing Time we never see the friendship from Tracey’s point of view. Instead, we stay in the often self-doubting, sometimes paranoid head of the narrator; an authorial tactic that shows us the complicated tangle of the narrator's emotions and self-understanding, without the possibly redeeming balance of another perspective. In other words, the pitfalls and pleasures of female friendship are entirely relatable.

In this way, Smith and Ferrante succeed at depicting the diversity and complexity of female identity and experience through their protagonists' relationships with other women. Both write characters that we can understand and relate to, even if – or maybe because – they aren’t always a bed of roses. At a time when Hillary Clinton is continually criticised for not being ‘likeable’ enough, it is heartening that, in fiction at least, women are (finally) allowed to be difficult.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith is published 15 November by Hamish Hamilton; Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels are out now, published by Europa Editions