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Three books tackle the complexities of friendship, through life and death, The Boston Globe

February 17, 2023

It is sometimes lamented that literature says too little about friendship. Lately though, counterexamples seem to be massing at the gate. Sigrid Nunez recently delivered two exquisite novels rooted in friendships (“The Friend” and “What Are You Going Through”). Well before her, Jack Kerouac sanctified his bond with Neal Cassady (the fictionalized Dean Moriarty) in “On the Road.”

After 20 years’ deliberation, Hua Hsu has set down the story of Ken, a beloved college friend killed in a carjacking. “Stay True” combines a portrait of Hsu’s lost companion with a story of Asian-American assimilation and Hsu’s own coming of age.

From early on, Hsu set about defining himself through his tastes in music. His parents, who had immigrated to California from Taiwan, still lived between two worlds. In music, however, Hsu’s father found a vehicle for Americanization, and it became the common language between father and son.

Hsu met Ken at Berkeley and at first despised him. Ken was handsome and self-confident, the product of multiple generations of Japanese Americans. He belonged to a fraternity and enjoyed swing dancing. Hsu held himself aloof, forgoing drugs and alcohol and delaying sexual activity in an imagined quest for authenticity.

But after a few casual encounters, something between the two clicked. They spent hours together dissecting films and music, in what Hsu describes as a form of subtext mining.

Though he tries valiantly to bring Ken alive on the page, Hsu runs up against the classic problem posed by untimely death. Ken was still relatively unformed, and much in the process of becoming, when he died. For better or worse in such cases, we are left with the story of the survivor.

Fortunately, Hsu is up to the task. He writes with a humble clarity, interrogating his own feelings (massive guilt among them) as he reflects on Ken’s death. Hsu did graduate work at Harvard, and moves with deceptive ease among big ideas, ably bringing the likes of Jacques Derrida and Charles Taylor to bear on his experience.

How true is the story he tries to assemble? Aware of his penchant for self-involvement, Hsu wonders at one point whether he and Ken had in fact been best friends. It seems to be taking him longer than their other friends to get past what happened. Hsu is nonetheless rattled when one asks: Were you and Ken really that close?

In the midst of his grief, Hsu steadily builds a writerly self. Conjuring a warm memory of aimless nighttime driving, he places Ken among his loudly singing friends. “I finally felt in my body how music worked,” he writes. “A chorus of nonbelievers, channeling God.”

In “Fiona and Jane,” Jean Chen Ho’s fictional account of a friendship, both main characters are, like Hsu, Taiwanese Americans growing up in California. Unlike memoir, fiction permits access to the interior lives of both partners in a friendship, and Ho takes full advantage, deftly rendering both her young women in their messy passage to adulthood.

Fiona and Jane have known each other since second grade. As best friends in high school, they experiment with alcohol and explore their emerging sexuality. Crucially, both grapple with the destructive pull of absent fathers.

Ho presents their evolving relationship through interlinked stories that, among other things, reveal how close friendships can go through fallow periods. One reason, particularly in American friendship tales, is geography. Fiona and Jane lose touch when, post-Berkeley, Fiona moves to New York. They reconnect on a markedly different footing when she returns.

Geography similarly challenges Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, who as young women hit it off at a party in Washington in the late 2000s. In their nonfiction work “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close,” they describe the almost instant rapport that soon made them inseparable.

Eventually, lured by a job offer in Los Angeles, Friedman departs for California. Later, Sow follows, but to San Francisco. In the meantime, undaunted by distance, they had launched a highly successful podcast, “Call Your Girlfriend,” in which they chatted about friendship, foregrounding their own.

With admirable candor, “Big Friendship” recounts the stress that developed in the relationship as the two women’s public and private friendships diverged. Finally confronting the problem head-on, and determined to share hard truths, they dug into the research on friendship.

One study found that only 30 percent of long-term friendships were still close after seven years. According to the linguist Deborah Tannen, the breakdown in deep friendships between women usually comes as a result of building frustrations rather than a single event.

Yet research shows that friendship becomes more important as people age. Who, after all, but a long-time friend can bear full witness to your life? Our friends are the people we choose — or, if we are lucky, who choose us, over and over.

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