My grade one teacher hung up a lot of art in our classroom. Some pieces were temporary: the cartoon ghosts at Hallowe’en; the fold-out bells at Christmas; the uneven hearts we made for Valentine’s Day. Others were framed and permanent, like the giant map of mostly Canada (the bits of the US that ran along the border were left completely blank) that I found confusing because I couldn’t figure out what had happened to all the other countries.
There was also an inspirational poster of two kids, drawn in pseudo-Precious Moments style, with the phrase “A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed” written in big bold letters below them. For years afterwards, I firmly believed that saying to mean “people who are having bad times really need friends: you should be one”.
Comparison with my globe at home helped me figure out that the classroom map wasn’t trying to trick me, just to show me my own country in detail. It took mumble-many more years for me to realize it was possible to parse the friend aphorism as “people who stay with you during bad times are truly your friends”.
What does any of that mean, other than that I was weirdly gullible in grade school? It means I had the opportunity to learn some important lessons very early on. The map helped me realize that things aren’t always what they seem on first sight. And the poster taught me that friends are important.
Because those bad times? They’re coming.
We move through out lives making connections at work, at home, at play. Not all of those relationships are the kind to see you head off a cliff together rather than be parted, but they’re real nonetheless. I’m pretty sure Richard Florida has written at least one book about this. But we don’t need statistics to know it’s true. Lifetime or situational; professional or personal: we live in an ever-changing network of ties ranging from adamantine to momentary.
In short, we have friends.
Good Romance novels have friends too. At least, they contain friends. Those friends might be prominent characters or minor players. They can be the catalyst for major plot points or part of the setting. The friendships might be observed more in mention than in action, or they might develop in concert with the conflict. But if the heroine — if the world of the story — is to be believed at all, they need to be visible somewhere.
A Romance heroine can start a story without any family or friends, or even the desire to make any close connections. Dramatically speaking, that’s a solid choice, and as an added bonus severely lessens the chances of boring narrative infodump. But if she remains friendless and alone, there’s a serious problem with the book (hint: it’s her). Even if it’s only the realization that life offers more than solitude, the heroine needs to make some sort of emotional progress. And that means she needs to have somewhere to go.
The move towards friendship doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can be a process, a slow unfurling. That approach often works well in a series. Nora Roberts ‘In Death’ series, which stars everyone’s favourite badly-damaged, futuristic murder cop, Eve Dallas, chronicles Eve’s gradual emotional awakening. In the first book, Naked in Death, Eve has a mentor and one friend. And that’s it, the sum total of her social acquaintance. Twenty-five plus books later, in addition to the husband who is her emotional core, Eve has friends, trusted work colleagues, solid aquaintances, amiable service providers, and even some newly discovered extended family. There are senior citizens in her life, and children, and an ever-increasing number of people she’d step into stunner fire to protect. Eve is not always comfortable with the emotional demands of personal relationships, but she has learned enough to know that they’re worthwhile. Even if they’re not easy.
That’s one of the elements I’ve liked about many of the manga series I’ve read: seeing people who have always been alone (by choice or otherwise) discover what it feels like to make and have friends. Kimi ni Todoke, by Karuho Shiina, is a great example. The main character is Sawako, a girl whose resemblance to ‘Sadako’, the terrifying (though fictional) main character of The Ring, has caused her classmates to fear and avoid her. But the school’s most popular boy, Kazehaya, is not afraid, and begins to draw Sawako out. Much of the series is devoted to their love story, but quite a bit pertains to how one social interaction, no matter how simple, can lead to another. Then another. Sawako is genuinely happy to become better acquainted with her classmates, and almost without realizing how, finds herself making real friends for the first time. The process is moving and sweet, though not without enough patches of turbulence to make it interesting. The series has spawned light novels, a video game, an anime series and a live action film, so obviously I’m not alone in my admiration.
The rough patches are necessary, if the characters are to be at all believable. Please note that ‘rough’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’: sometimes it just means ‘not smooth’. Too much smoothness comes across as a sort of visible shortcut. There are all kinds of stock friends in Romance: the sassy, brassy neighbour; the grounded, voice-of-reason buzz-kill; the ethnic or gay caricature who says things like ‘No you di-int!’ or ‘Darling, that’s fabulous!’. Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money introduced both Stephanie Plum and her memorably loopy grandmother: after that, scrappy senior sidekicks popped up everywhere. Ugh, ugh, ugh. That kind of lazy, box-ticking stereotype is annoying, and only marginally better than the alternative: no friends appearing in the text at all.
Fake friends are bad: no friends are worse. The Bechdel test can be a helpful guide when it comes to deciding if friends in a Romance novel are well-written. The test states that here should be at least two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. Nowadays the friends don’t have to be only women. It’s 2014: we other options. And though it’s good for them to talk about something besides men, that doesn’t mean friends can’t discuss men at all.
Depending on the scope and style of the story, friends might talk about: love and/or sex (it is a Romance novel, after all); work; pets; major social issues; movies; tragedies; children; parents; health; money; aging; food; triumphs; clothing and every other single thing women talk about. Which is everything. Anything. At any time. Friends are the grace notes in a world not overfull of them. So whatever else they are, they should at least start by being real.
Chris Szego wants to be a good friend. In need. In deed.
Lovely piece, Chris. I love stories about friendship.
Thanks Chris, and also to the Toronto Public Library. Kimi ni Todoke Volume 1 on reserve.
Your description of your grade school perceptions is really evocative. I remember the feeling of confusion that went with trying to make sense of something when pieces of information were missing, and those years of certainty about what something meant only to discover it wasn’t that at all.
Then again, meaning is something you make and when pieces are missing it makes it a bit like poetry, where the sense of it isn’t explicitly clear but you have the opportunity to get so much out of it if you try.