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The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True Life Tales of Friendships That Blew up, Burned out or Faded Away

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Losing a friend can be as painful and as agonizing as a divorce or the end of a love affair, yet it is rarely written about or even discussed. THE FRIEND WHO GOT AWAY is the first book to address this near-universal experience, bringing together the brave, eloquent voices of writers like Francine Prose, Katie Roiphe, Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Hood, Diana Abu Jabar, Vivian Gornick, Helen Schulman, and many others. Some write of friends who have drifted away, others of sudden breakups that took them by...
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Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women's True Life Tales of Friendships That Blew up, Burned out or Faded Away

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Overview

Losing a friend can be as painful and as agonizing as a divorce or the end of a love affair, yet it is rarely written about or even discussed. THE FRIEND WHO GOT AWAY is the first book to address this near-universal experience, bringing together the brave, eloquent voices of writers like Francine Prose, Katie Roiphe, Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Hood, Diana Abu Jabar, Vivian Gornick, Helen Schulman, and many others. Some write of friends who have drifted away, others of sudden breakups that took them by surprise. Some even celebrate their liberation from unhealthy or destructive relationships. Yet at the heart of each story is the recognition of a loss that will never be forgotten.

From stories about friendships that dissolved when one person revealed a hidden self or moved into a different world, to tales of relationships sabotaged by competition, personal ambition, or careless indifference, THE FRIEND WHO GOT AWAY casts new light on the meaning and nature of women’s friendships. Katie Roiphe writes with regret about the period in her life when even close friends seemed expendable compared to men and sex. Mary Morris reveals how a loan led to the unraveling of a lifelong friendship. Vivian Gornick explores how intellectual differences eroded the bond between once inseparable companions. And two contributors, once best friends, tell both sides of the story that led to their painful breakup.

Written especially for this anthology and touched with humor, sadness, and sometimes anger, these extraordinary pieces simultaneously evoke the uniqueness of each situation and illuminate the universal emotions evoked by the loss of a friend.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The stories of how friendships began are seldom as interesting as the accounts of how they ended. The Friend Who Got Away offers 20 surprisingly diverse histories of relationships on the rocks. In some cases, the friendship ends in a sudden explosion of sexual betrayal; in others, it fizzes into quiet oblivion. Editors Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell have assembled an impressive contributors roster that includes Francine Prose, Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Strout, Katie Roiphe, Anna Hood, Vivian Gornick, Diana Abu-Jaber, Mary Morris, Helen Schulman, and others.
From the Publisher
“These tales are truly heartwarming and heartbreaking. Which pretty much describes the too often fleeting nature of friendship.” —Daily Candy

The Friend Who Got Away … reveals women to be thoughtful and kind, sometimes callous and neglectful, like all humans.”—The New York Times Book Review

“An intense, intelligent collection of first-person accounts by women who analyze and mourn friendships lost.” —Time Out New York

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767917193
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/9/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.21 (w) x 7.93 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

JENNY OFFILL is the author of the novel Last Things. She teaches in the M.F.A. writing program at Brooklyn College. ELISSA SCHAPPELL is the author of the novel Use Me, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a cofounder of Tin House.
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Read an Excerpt

Torch Song

Katie Roiphe

My memory of Stella, at nineteen, is neither as crisp nor as detailed as it should be. It's only with a tremendous effort of will that I can bring her into focus at all. She is wearing a complicated black outfit that looks like rags pinned together with safety pins, and black stockings, with deliberate runs laddering her legs. Her skin is translucent, the color of skim milk, and her matted, dyed blond hair looks about as plausibly human as the hair of a much loved doll. Under her eyes are extravagant circles, plum colored and deep. She always looks haggard. No one that age looked haggard the way she looked haggard. And yet, as one came to know her, that was part of her romance.

Stella was from the South. I remember her being from a trailer park, but it may have been a small, sleepy town. She had some sort of unspeakable tragedy in her background, which added to the quality of southern gothic she cultivated. In my picture of her, she is curled up on a mahogany windowsill, with a Faulkner novel, but in reality, she was one of those brilliant college students whose minds are clamoring too loudly with their own noise to read much.

On good days, Stella looked as if she were late to the most important meeting of her life; on bad days, she looked if she were being hunted down by organized and insidious forces. She was also one of the most powerful people in our Harvard class. She was monumentally, conspicuously damaged in a way that was, to us then, ineffably chic. She had an entourage of followers and hangers-on, mostly men of ambiguous sexual preference whose mothers had given them exotic, weighty names like Byron and Ulysses. She had an authentically doomed streak that was to the rest of us, future bankers, editors, lawyers, future parents of one point five children, and mortgage holders, uniquely appealing. And the whole time I knew her she was writing something--a detective story? a play? a thriller?--something with a murder in it, I think, but whatever it was, it added to the impression that she was engaged in more important endeavors than the rest of us. She talked in the cartoon bubbles of comic book characters: "Oh ho." Or "Jumping Juniper." Or "Iced cold beverage," or "Eek." This was part of an elaborate, stylized defense, against the softness associated with sincerity.

And yet, the perfection of her cool was pleasantly undermined by an ambience of frazzled vulnerability. She was overweight, and had a flinching relationship with her own body. If you caught a glimpse of her coming down Plympton Street at dusk, you might mistake her self-deprecating shuffle for that of a homeless person. In retrospect, I can see that she was kind of wonderful looking, with her fabulous, disheveled gestalt, but at the time being overweight was an enormous, almost insurmountable, taboo. She had a great, pure throaty laugh, which went along with a child's pleasure in the smallest things. I can see her clapping her hands in delight over a chocolate sundae or a gardenia-scented candle.

She was one of the few girls at school that I could talk to. We would sit on her bed and chatter for hours. She would smoke insane amounts of cigarettes. I would drink insane amounts of coffee. In the background a scratchy Lou Reed song called "Waltzing Mathilda" might be playing; a song which for some reason we couldn't get enough of. It was about a party interrupted by the inconvenient discovery of a female corpse.

Over the years the sting of what happened between us has died down to an anecdote repeated at cocktail parties, where I had found it could be interesting sometimes to reveal something odious about yourself. "Will you listen to how you sound?" I can hear Stella saying. "It's still all about what a colorful character you are, isn't it?" In my mind her voice is perpetually and sharply sarcastic, which it wasn't always. There was plenty to Stella besides her considerable satiric gifts. But that is, after all of these years, what remains.

Stella's one conventionality was that she was in love. The boy in question was very tall and very green-eyed. He wore ripped jeans and fake gas station attendant's shirts, and was a Buddhist. He had a funny, fluid way of moving his long arms and legs that was attractively effeminate and moderately vain. And he had elegant, sharply arched eyebrows that gave him the aspect of one of the wickeder Greek gods. I won't bother to say what his name was because he could have been anyone, and his specific personality, which was fairly annoying in a number of specific ways, would only be a sideshow and a distraction. I knew the night I met him and Stella that they both were and weren't together; both facts were equally apparent after being around either of them for five minutes. They orbited each other, but anxiously. They spoke the same weird patois, a mixture of baby talk and archness. ("Who was that female person you were talking to?" "I don't know to whom you are referring, doll.") They seemed, if anything, like a brother and sister engaged in some kind of incestuous love under the magnolia trees of an old plantation.

The secret was that Stella and the boy sometimes slept together. In retrospect, I can't think why it was such a secret, unless it was the boy's vanity that demanded they remain officially unattached. Their spotty, intermittent affair depended on him not seeing a more conventionally pretty girl, and was extremely damaging for Stella, who remained in a state of dramatically heightened jealousy at all times. There was a whiff of scandal to the whole thing, which came, in a world where surfaces were everything, from their being so mismatched in looks.

In other words, it was hardly an ambiguous situation. There was, Stella would later point out, no shortage of boys: there were boys with prettier eyes or a more refined knowledge of Proust; boys with more original neuroses, and less saccharine forms of spirituality. But the fact is that attractions are contagious. I spent hours sitting at "Tommy's Lunch," drinking lime slushies and listening to Stella take apart the peculiarities of his character; hours listening to her fits of jealousy over the irresistible odalisques sprawled across his dorm bed. This is what happens when an overly intelligent woman brings all of her talents to bear on an infatuation: Without either of us realizing what was happening, she somehow persuaded me of his attractiveness.

My flirtation with the boy, if you could even call it that, was beyond furtive. The three of us were often together, and he and I behaved toward each other with an irreproachable mixture of mannerliness and hostility. He came to visit me alone once when I was sick and brought me magazines and orange juice. Our conversation was innocent bordering on banal. I think we talked about the declining quality of the cereal selection at breakfast. Neither one of us told Stella about the visit.

And yet somehow we both knew. It was as abstract and agreed upon as an arranged marriage. I felt it when I stepped into the cool morning air, and gulped down a milky cup of coffee before class. I felt it when I walked next to the slate-colored river, watching the shallow crew boats skim the surface. It was with me, in other words, all the time: a low-grade excitement about this boy I barely knew. From this distance in time, this may be the most foreign and inscrutable part of the story: the attractions that could at any moment flare up and end your life as you knew it.

At this point I may as well offer a slight, very slight, argument in my defense: people didn't belong as absolutely to other people then. There was a kind of fluidity to our world. The barriers that in adult life seem so solid and fixed, literal walls defining your apartment, your bedroom, did not exist at that age. You listened, for instance, to your roommate having sex; you slept easily and deeply on someone else's couch; you ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with everyone you knew. And somehow nothing was quite real unless it was shared, talked about, rehashed with friends, fretted about and analyzed, every single thing that happened, every minute gradation of emotion, more a story in the process of being told than events in and of themselves.

Over the summer the boy came to visit me in New York. I remember him standing in the doorway to my room, grinning, with an army green duffel. Had we pretended it was a platonic visit? It seems far-fetched that he would have come all the way from New Hampshire to New York to see a casual acquaintance, but I have a feeling that was what we told ourselves. We climbed up to the roof of my parents' building and watched the boats go by on the Hudson, the sun silhouetting the squat water towers a dark silvery green.

I am aware, even now, of some small part of me that would like to say that it was worth it, some adolescent, swaggering side that would like to claim that the sexual moment itself seared the imagination, and was worth, in its tawdry, obliterating way, the whole friendship. It was not.

Of the act itself, I remember almost nothing at all. It seems that when one is doing something truly illicit, not just moderately illicit but plainly wrong, the sex itself is forgettable. The great fact of the immorality overshadows anything two mere bodies can achieve. All I remember is that he was gentle, in the way that sensitive boys were supposed to be gentle. He brought me a warm washcloth afterward, which sickened me slightly, and embarrassed me.

Stella, red pencil tucked behind her ear, would notice that I haven't described the actual seduction. That I've looked politely away from the events, because they are incriminating and, more important, banal. I wouldn't want to debase my great betrayal, my important, self-flagellating narrative with anything so mundane as what actually happened. That's how she would see it, anyway. Two people taking off their clothes, however gloriously wrong, are, in the end, just two people taking off their clothes.

But really, the problem is that my mind has thrown up an elegant Japanese folding screen, with a vista of birds and mountains and delicate, curling trees, to modestly block out the goings-on. And it does seem after all of these years, that a blow-by-blow would be anticlimactic. I can say, in a larger sense, what happened, which is this: I didn't care about him, nor did I delude myself into thinking that I did. I had enough sense to know that what I was experiencing so forcefully was a fundamentally trivial physical impulse. And that's what makes the whole situation so bewildering and impenetrable. Why would one night with a boy I didn't even particularly like seem worth ruining a serious and irreplaceable friendship?

I suppose, in accordance with the general and damaging abstraction of those years, I was fulfilling some misplaced idea of myself. I was finally someone who took things lightly. I thought a lot about "lightness" then. Even though I wasn't someone who took things lightly at all, I liked, that year, to think of myself as someone who did--all of which raises another question in my mind. Was at least part of the whole miserable escapade the fault of that wretched Milan Kundera book everyone was reading, The Unbearable Lightness of Being? That silly, adolescent ode to emotional carelessness, that ubiquitous paperback expounding an obscure eastern European profundity in moral lapses? The more I think about it the more I think it's fair to apportion a tiny bit of the blame to Mr. Kundera. (Here Stella would raise her eyebrows. "A book forced you to do it? How literary of you, how well read you must be. . . .")

I suppose, also, in some corner of my fevered and cowardly brain I must have thought we would get away with it. I must have thought we would sleep together once and get it out of our systems. It turned out, however, that the boy believed in "honesty," an approach I would not have chosen on my own. He called Stella at the soonest possible second and told her. It was not hard to imagine the frantic look in Stella's eyes when he told her. Stella looked frantic when she had to pour cornflakes in a bowl. I hated him for telling her. I couldn't bear the idea of her knowing. Strangely enough, I felt protective of her, as if I wanted to protect her from the threat of myself.

I don't think I grasped right away the magnitude of what I had done. It felt--thanks to Professor Kerrick's Representations of Anomie in Twentieth-Century Art--like waking up in the middle of a Rene Magritte painting and finding tiny men with bowler hats suddenly falling from the sky. It didn't make sense, even to me, and I was startled, in a way, to find that it was real. To have the boy in my house the next morning, wanting coffee, and to have his soft blue-and-green flannel shirt spread out on my floor, was for some reason extremely startling. Cause and effect were sufficiently severed in my mind that I had not apprehended the enormity of the betrayal. In the light of day, it seemed a little unfair that I couldn't take it back.

I don't remember if the boy called Stella from my house, or if he waited a few hours and called her from a phone booth in the train station. I do remember him reveling in his abject abasement. I couldn't believe how much he reveled. He was, among other things, a religious nut. But back to Stella. It's funny how even now my mind wanders back to him. This man I did not even delude myself into thinking that I cared about. This man I did not even like.

Stella, needless to say, was furious, mostly at me. I've noticed, in these cases, one is always furious at the person of the same sex, and one always finds the person of the other sex contemptible yet oddly blameless. To further complicate things, Stella and I were supposed to be roommates in the fall. This made everything infinitely worse: undoing our roommate arrangements proved to be more arduous than one would think. We had to disentangle ourselves officially in the eyes of the bureaucracy, and on paper: it was like getting a divorce.

Before I go any further maybe I should say something about self-destructiveness in those years. That warm July night, there was the pleasure of destruction, of Zippo lighters torching straw huts, of razing something truly good and valuable to the ground; there was the sense, however subliminal, of disemboweling a friendship. I remember filleting fish that I caught with my father on the docks, and seeing liver, kidney, roe splayed open on the slick wooden docks, for all to see. There was something thrilling and disgusting about it. Tearing open my friendship with Stella had the same effect. I felt sickened. I felt the freeing thrill of ruining everything.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The Friend Who Got Away's epigraph comes from Virginia Woolf who wrote a great deal about the intricacies of human relationships. What does she seem to be saying about the nature of friendship?

2. Why do we assume friendships should be "sturdier" than romantic relationships? What expectations do we bring to a friendship that we don't bring to a romance? Are these realistic? Why or why not?

3. Most of the friendships in the book center on the relationships between women. Could the same book have been written about friendships between men? Are these friendships built on similar or different foundations? Is one more enduring than the other?

4. One of the premises of the book is that these stories about lost friends are incredibly common yet seldom revealed. Why do you think such secrecy surrounds this issue? Is there shame involved when a friendship fails?

5. Many of the writers in this anthology speak to the difficulty of unraveling what led to the demise of their friendships. Why is it so difficult to assess blame and responsibility in these situations? Which essays most clearly address this problem of culpability?

6. In the paired essays "Heather" and "Emily" we get a rare glimpse of the story of a friendship breakup from both points of views. In the other essays, were you able to imagine the absent friend's side of the story as well? Did you ever find yourself empathizing more with the lost friend than the author?

7. In Emily White's "Shelter" and Ann Hood's "How I Lost Her", we never learn why the friends disappear so abruptly. Imagine their side of the story.

8. Jenny Offill's "End Days" and Elissa Schappell's "You'll Be Alright" both describe unlikely friendships. Why might such a friendship be a source of comfort? Jennifer Gilmore's "The Kindness of Strangers" goes even further to suggest that sometimes strangers are able to provide more solace in times of crisis than old friends. Why might this be the case?

9. The old saying "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" seems to apply to the friendship Mary Morris describes in "The Other Face". How does money affect the power dynamic in a relationship? Do you agree with Morris' choice not to return the painting? Why do you think her friend didn't cash the checks?

10. Kate Bernheimer's essay explores the pain and isolation that she felt when her friends were able to bear children and she was not. Why might fertility or the lack thereof be a divisive issue among women?

11. This anthology captures a range of friendships that span from childhood to old age. How have your friendships changed over the years? Was there a "golden age" of friendship?

12. What role does friendship play in your life now? Are your friendships as high a priority as they once were? In your own life do you have "a friend who got away" or a friend you now realize you should have cut loose? Describe what happened.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2006

    friendship is wonderful and complicated

    True, honest stories that suck you in with sublime writing and impart enormous insight into female relationships. Must reading for women wishing to improve theirs. Whereas beloved women have slipped in and out of my life like a dream, I now feel more conscious of the psychological and emotional intricacies that were in play. And sometimes life just happens--people change, circumstances change, nothing is forever. Sometimes it's nobody's fault, and acceptance frees you up for something better.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    'The Friend' Found Its Way In These Essays The Friend Who Got A

    'The Friend' Found Its Way In These Essays

    The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women’s True Life Tales of Friendships that Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell (author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls, which is on my Kindle) is a book of essays written by women who lost a female friendship. Some were by choice, others by mistake, and a few for no reason at all. As a woman who is entering her 30′s, I have begun to experience first hand the effects of losing a longtime female friendship for no other reason other than drifting away, and I have ended some by choice.




    What I loved about this book is that it’s honest. The introduction discusses how it’s okay to breakup with lovers, but that female friendship rarely end with a clean break. This is because women hold each other to higher standards, and to commit an act of betrayal against a female friend is much worse than having done so in a romantic relationship (and women also grant other women more leeway in their behaviors).




    While all of the essays were great, I was most intrigued by the back-to-back essays written by two women who had lost their friendship years before. It was fascinating to see two different people describe their perception of the friendship and its dissolution, demonstrating that each person perceives and feels things different.




    This is a great book for any woman who has ever lost a friend to time, betrayal, or simply to the circumstances of life. It was nice to realize that I am not alone and that it’s okay not to feel guilty about the ending of a friendship. It’s more important for women to celebrate the time they had together than to focus on the drifting apart.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    wonderful, women need to read our stories

    The writing in this book is good enough to eat. I think we write best about things we know well, things near and dear to our heart. And friends are. Surprisingly, the stories are not such downers, because they also tell how friends are made and grow and how dear they can be. And then they end, not because there's something wrong with us. But because we just quit needing each other so much, or grow differently, and that's life. it's okay.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2011

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