The Golden Notebook
By Doris Lessing (1962)
‘The two women were alone in the London flat.” Thus opens a series of unflinching scenes from two years in the lives of Anna Wulf and Molly Jacobs. These key characters in Doris Lessing’s novel—a work blisteringly truthful about money, love, politics and sex—became friends as members of the British Communist Party. Each is divorced and raising a child. Molly is preoccupied with the direction life is taking for her 20-year-old son, Tommy, while the talented Anna, the author of a best seller, suffers from writer’s block. The narrative unfolds in excerpts from Anna’s journals, ultimately becoming a record of her struggle against emotional breakdown. “The Golden Notebook” has been variously judged a feminist treatise, a commentary on the end of Stalinism and a cornerstone of postmodernism. All valid readings, but the book is, for this reader, brilliant above all in its portrayal of the subtle facets of friendship, love and self-deception—and as a portrait of a complexly lived inner life.
The Folded Leaf
By William Maxwell (1945)
After a near-drowning in swim class, two boys—bookish Lymie Peters, who is saved by the fierce, athletic Spud Latham—stick together through the rites of adolescence in 1920s Chicago. The two are inseparable even in college, until their friendship is threatened in unexpected ways. In this beautiful, quiet book, William Maxwell—who was for 40 years the fiction editor of the New Yorker—observes the intricacies of loyalty and trust. Published in 1945, long before the popularization of identity politics, the novel creates its own haunting territory between friendship and sexual love. Maxwell rewrote it more than a decade later to include a revelatory scene about the young men’s relationship—yet it is Maxwell’s gift for rendering the fragility of attachment that makes this book so disarming and memorable.
Mary McCarthy (1963)
It has been nearly half a century since Mary McCarthy published this trenchant classic about the lives of eight Vassar graduates (class of 1933). Is it possible that, decades after the sexual revolution, the preoccupations of many educated American women are not so different from those of McCarthy’s “group”? Apparently, yes. The grads take jobs, meet lovers and struggle into mid-life. The novel gains authority from a kind of collective intelligence, telling us the truth about Kay Strong’s unfortunate marriage to an actor; about Priss Hartshorn’s efforts to breast-feed her baby; about Polly Andrews’s affair with a married man. The interlocking chapters work as wry commentary on class, love and sex.
A Fine Balance
By Rohinton Mistry (1995)
This magnificent novel, set in India during the 1975 Emergency, depicts a world in which friendship becomes a brief salvation for human beings at the mercy of social and political oppression. Dina Dalal, a widow struggling to maintain her independence by running a sewing business in her apartment, hires Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, an untouchable uncle and nephew seeking a better life. But Om and Ishvar are challenged in their efforts to work: They are loaded onto a bus and forced to rally in support of the prime minister; then their shanty is torn down, forcing them to sleep on the street, where they are rounded up to do forced labor on an irrigation project. At last, Dina permits them to stay in her apartment, along with her boarder, Maneck Kohlah. The flowering friendship among Dina, Om, Ishvar and Maneck forms the heart of the book. For a brief time, the makeshift family “sails under one flag.” Dickensian in its structure and panoramic in its scope, “A Fine Balance” reaches great heights of tragedy and absurdity, but it is never more engrossing than in its detailed depictions of the four friends as they cook together, eat together and share the same bathroom.
Crossing to Safety
By Wallace Stegner (1987)
On a frosty night in Madison, Wis., in 1937, two young and hopeful couples form a bond that carries them through the next 34 years. Larry and Sally Morgan, talented but poor, are befriended by the wealthy and idealistic Sid and Charity Lang. After one memorable year in Madison, the couples and their children continue to meet in Vermont in the summers. Over time, their life expectations are tested again and again. Sid longs to be a poet but finds his dreams in conflict with those of his vivacious wife. Larry’s own writing is put on hold when Sally is stricken with polio. In old age, the Morgans and Langs meet for a final time. The wilderness of Vermont, beautiful and threatening, suffuses their last, wrenching conversations, lending a natural mortality to this examination of human love and frailty. “I didn’t know myself well, and still don’t,” Larry acknowledges. “But I did know, and know now, the few people I loved and trusted.”
Ms. Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her latest novel, “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost,” has just been published.
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