Pink princess parties notwithstanding, scratch a girl, and what you will find is a preoccupation not with tutus but with friends—specifically, a best friend. In the popular imagination, this is a figure somewhere between confidante and guardian—a defender, or, at least, partner, in the roiling pool of scorn and censure that is one’s peer group. In private life, best friends can be more like a boss and employee—and when you are in your tutu, it is your best friend who is most likely to point out that your pointe shoes are wrong. If the most well-known stories about boys becoming men pit their subjects in a lonely struggle against an uncaring world, the most significant stories of girls becoming women grapple with the complexity of making the same journey in the company of those with whom they have shared nearly everything they can.
My first Book of Best Friends (BBFs) was Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl, a pink-jacketed, deckled-edged tome I took out weekly from our school’s library. (According to its checkout card, I was easily the first one to have done so in a decade.) As one of those readers who finds Beth boring and is slightly relieved when she dies, I much preferred it to Little Women, in which my only interest was the awkward, but stubbornly honest Jo as the foil to her sister, snub-nosed Amy, who was preoccupied only with curls and status.
Jo and Amy are alive and well in An Old-Fashioned Girl, although they come to us in the figures of wholesome Polly and wealthy, if well-meaning, Fanny. The two are “country mouse and city mouse,” first passing a visit in the city mouse’s manse, then growing into adulthood together. Fanny is deeply fond of Polly, though this does not stop her from telling Polly upfront to please not do things like declare how splendid Fanny’s toilet-table is “in front of the other girls,” and wishing she wore earrings. “I’ll take care of you, and fix you up, so you won’t look odd,” Fan tells Polly. “Am I odd?” Polly asks, hoping, in this context, it doesn’t mean anything bad.
Increasingly, it seems it does. Polly, rather overwhelmed by Fan’s entire toilette, peer group, and, often, behavior, privately resolves and notes and decides all over the place to behave as Fanny wishes—to a point. In fact, she also blushes for her friend, but it’s when Fanny answers “Larmartine” for “Lafayette” when asked what famous Frenchman fought in the American Revolution. (A mistake no Hamilton-schooled kid would make today.)
Spoiler alert: these warring philosophies – knowing your history vs. frizzling your hair — finally come to a head. If you know your Alcott, you will know who is humbled, and probably how. (It’s Fanny!) When her family’s fortune is lost, Fanny must turn to Polly to see how to live humbly and simply—which is to say, happily—and becomes a better person learning how to “turn her dresses” and actually socialize with girls who work for a living.
It’s the March girls learning how pleasant it is to give Christmas breakfast away all over again, with a key difference. In this novel, the adult Polly, alone in the city, making her living as a music teacher, is in fact very tested by her small means and lack of family. When a neighbor in much the same straits tries to commit suicide and Polly rejects an appropriate, open-handed suitor, even the reader has begun to think that practicality should win out.
When I picked up Zadie Smith’s gloriously panoramic novel Swing Time, I was surprised and thrilled to find Fanny and Polly in modern, though narratively fractal, form. The novel’s unnamed narrator, self-conscious and internal, comes pre-humbled. One of the first corrections her new, adored friend Tracy levels on her is that her parents are “the wrong way round”—which is to say, a black mother and a white father, not a black father and a white mother, like Tracey has. Unlike Fanny, Swing Time’s protagonist is ashamed of all the things that mark her as superior from her new friend in the council flats: namely her father (attentive, and present), and her mother, a feminist with her nose in a book and utilitarian outfits that presage a different, better future. But the power differential, it turns out, is not so simple: “Her bedroom was a revelation,” the narrator tells us. “It overturned everything I thought I had understood about our shared situation. Her bed was in the shape of a pink Barbie sports car, her curtains were frilled, all her cabinets were white and shiny, and in the middle of the room it looked like someone simply emptied Santa’s sleigh on to the carpet.”
While they share 80’s joys like lollipop flutes and pop music, like Polly, the narrator hides her more wholesome tastes—jazz standards, and old films of musicals like the title’s Swing Time, or Ali Baba Goes to Town or Showboat. And just as Polly’s “country mouse” pursuits open her up to a wider world than Fan’s bubble, so does this hobby serve as the narrator’s unconscious education in race.
Through film she absorbs a dizzying set of rules and masks—Mr. Bojangles aping his own stereotype; white actors appearing in blackface, or, make-up free, are cast as mulattoes who are “passing”; American black dancers brought on to play “real” Africans, in grass skirts, with spears, themselves playacting refugees from the kingdom of Dahomey—in fact, a true and powerful African kingdom (with an Amazon army!) finally extinguished by the French in the 19th century.
The narrator is only able to lure Tracey back into watching the films with her when she finds one such dancer in Ali Baba, Jeni LeGon, who just happens to be the spitting image of Tracey herself—and whose remarkable, idiosyncratic dance moves Tracey borrows to audition, and get into, a premier dance school. This, for both girls, changes everything. Without Tracey, “I found out what I was without my friend: a body without a distinct outline,” she tells us. “I was more engaged with what I imagine of Tracey’s schooling than with the reality of my own.”
In life, Tracey is the narrator’s own Jeni LeGon—the dancer whom, by her pure superiority, transcends the absurd hierarchies and masks of the play. The narrator herself is defeated utterly by the task. A revelatory moment unfolds in Gambia (actually in Africa!), where she travels as an assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star who is opening a girls’ school in a village. She finally jumps into a circle of dancers and lets herself go —only to be told by the villagers that, like her boss, she is one of those white people who can really dance like a black person.
Swing Time is a large stage with even more complex series of rules, but these never feel haphazard: Smith has created a piece of work large enough to discuss race and growing up as a woman as it occurs on a global scale—which is to say, locally. Whether she’s a teen goth powdering her face or a child doing a sultry version of Aimee’s dance with Tracey, the narrator repeatedly finds herself in the position of some kind of minstrel, and only her passport and wardrobe signify which.
When, as an adult, Tracey finally betrays the narrator, it is on a global scale, though the questions the crisis raises are those the girls confronted as early as grade school. What makes a “real” family? What is it to be black and white? What makes you a “whore”? Two girls brought together because they are the same color of mahogany, Smith writes, as if cut from the same piece of cloth, regard each other dubiously over the years: Who are you pretending to be now?
I could also not help but see Tracey in Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, who would understand the moment in which Becky tosses the patronizing gift of a dictionary right back out of the carriage upon leaving her boarding school. Like Tracey, Becky is a nimble and elusive figure–one part charm, two parts destruction–no more able to stop shining onstage than she can to flop in real life. The origins of her mix are volatile–but what shines out is a fierce, inborn dose of eff-you. Tracey and Becky have both invented august families for themselves to disguise their lowly origins—in Sharp’s case, a venerable, distant French family, and in Tracey’s, a father who is a back-up dancer to Michael Jackson. They both possess talents that allow them to rise easily above their means—in Tracey, dance, and in Becky, voice, perfect French—and both possess the same brand of inherent, killing charm. They both must make their own way in the world, and are each impatient with their best friend’s credulous innocence, while jealous of the circumstances that make it possible.
Like the movies of Swing Time, Vanity Fair reveals a hierarchy of blacks, one that analyzes white and black women purely in cost-benefit terms. In the first few paragraphs, we meet “Sambo,” a black servant; and, more significantly, Miss Swartz, a mulatto heiress who pays double to attend the boarding school where the wealthy Amelia Sedley is a favorite and Becky a scholarship student who teaches French for her board. It is the height of colonialism, in India and the West Indies, and Miss Swartz is but one iteration of the mythical “black wife” that wealthy parents feel their far-flung sons might marry, bringing home a set of “mahogany” grandchildren. Against this threat, even penniless Becky seems a safer bet, though, in the marriage game that makes up the first part of the novel, one father argues the virtues of the eight or ten thousand pounds a year Miss Swartz would bring. “Gad, if Miss S. will have me, I’m her man,” the patriarch says. “I ain’t particular about a shade or two of tawny.”
Thackeray, like Smith, is kind to his antiheroine, and does a great deal to explain the circumstances that make Becky’s numerous betrayals—and masquerades—understandable to the reader.; the foremost being that with no mother to arrange marriages for her and no money to bring to a match, she is entirely on her own. Not easy, in a world where a healthy dowry and a dimpled modesty are almost moral achievements, and even a note between an unmarried man and woman is almost sacrilege. How can Becky help but use the nearest conduit to a partner—her best friend—whether that means her brother, or even her husband? (One of whom, to be fair to the best friend, she probably murders.)
The advantage Amelia possesses in this matter—orders above being simply liked at school—is, to Becky, a kind of systemic betrayal. Tracey feels the same about the kind father of Swing Time’s narrator, who protects his daughter rather than preying on her and neglecting her, as Tracey’s father likely does. Accordingly, both do their best to destroy the families they can’t inhabit. By the end of the novel, both Tracey and Becky, in their own ways, have partly succeeded. Both have also alienated themselves. Their scant security has cost them their friends (though Smith offers a hint of future reconciliation), but given their early challenges, one suspects each would accept that bargain.
The girls of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn would love to stand allied against the world; the world has other plans for them. As in the other novels, they begin by flowing together, going inside, as the narrator eventually writes, each others’ skins. August, the narrator, new in Bushwick, watches Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi do double-dutch, “My mouth slightly open, intrigued by the effortless flow of them so that the other could continue moving…I pressed my face against the hot glass, palms flat against the window, wanting to be on the inside of Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi’s continuum.” She is familiar with their bodies before they even meet, watching them from her desk in school: “Before I knew their names, I knew the tiny bones at the back of the necks, the tender curve of the hairline,” August tells us.
But life, as it will, teases them apart. There are Sylvia’s parents, from the Virgin Islands, who don’t want her to be like a “dusty, black American”; there is the Angela’s mother, a heroin addict who, like many in the neighborhood, dies of an overdose; there is Gigi’s rape; there is August’s absent mother, who August refuses to admit is dead. There are their changing bodies, which make them prey, their poverty, which makes them vulnerable, and their skin, the unspoken burden they share: “We had blades inside our kneesocks and were growing our nails long…but Brooklyn had longer nails and sharper blades. Any strung-out soldier or ashy-kneed, hungry child could have told us this.”
By the end of the novel, Gigi has saved seats for her friends to watch her as she stars in a play, and the seats remain empty. (Almost an identical scene takes place in Swing Time—the girl watching the clock, and simply not going.) They have gone from sharing the same skin to longer even seeing one another, and, like Polly’s friend, Gigi chooses the ultimate act of withdrawal.
It is no coincidence that, in every one of these novels, the author follows the friendship from childhood to adulthood, because best friends, unlike childhoods, are a lifelong affair. They easily transcend schools, parents, partners, continents—whether one is talking to the friend or not. Why? This early merging creates a mirror self, one whose choices, however simple, are a comment or betrayal of one’s own.
It’s also no surprise that the novels share so many conventions: being on stage, stealing each other’s boyfriends, shows of great poverty and great wealth, colonization and immigration, betrayals reverberating across communities and whole countries. (Yes, even in An Old-Fashioned Girl!) This is not because girls are more likely to suffer swings of wealth, or star in plays, or steal each other’s partners. It is not even, general opinion notwithstanding, that girls are somehow harder on one another than boys.
No—it is that these fictional versions of fortune’s wheel show how, for girls, small choices reverberate so wildly in one’s life, how easily they are taken over, how swiftly they must switch tactics, or adjust. One girl gets pregnant; another doesn’t. One man gets slightly too drunk to propose—an entire life changes. One play is successful, another fails. This is an illustration not of how harshly girls judge each other but of how harshly the world judges girls—and finds them wanting.
And, when the world is so ruthless in its judgment, is it any surprise girls render it with such relish on one another? When you must acquire power from a wealthy boss or a wealthy father or a wealthy husband, competition is fierce, not for the men, but for the autonomy. “Children are,” one character tells Swing Time’s narrator, “a kind of wealth,” but in the space of these four novels, which take place centuries apart, it’s hard to see how. Those with their own money rarely have children; those with children have no money, or no money of their own. What emerges instead are how valuable the things we can’t control remain: beauty, race, parenthood, the class into which we are born—and, quite important, whom we love.
In Another Brooklyn, August describes how the friends confound the men who won’t let them alone. “The four of us together,” she says, “weren’t something they understood. They understood girls alone, folding their arms across their chests, praying for invisibility.” How well the women we knew as girls do alone is decidedly mixed. Those who have lived too long in the shadow of a friend—like Vanity Fair’s Amelia Sedley, or the unnamed narrator of Swing Time, have rude awakenings. Those who have made their own islands of calm remain on those islands. Those at the mercy of Alcott have, of course, a happy ending.
The adult August darts off a train before her stop to avoid speaking further to the friend who took her boyfriend, then had his child. But the meeting opens up the rich vein of memory, to the time the girls were together, were a bulwark against the world. Knowing that this continuum changes, but never actually disappears, is a funny – but real — comfort in a world where most everything does both. Understanding that might just be the essence of growing up.