Adolescent girl friendships are tricky. Watching them everyday, I can almost pinpoint which friendships will last through high school for my students and which ones will be left behind, though eulogized in long, flowery messages in their middle school yearbooks; the kind that adults look back on and laugh at the promises to stay friends forever. Yes, those messages still get written.
After reading A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, a young adult Victorian Gothic novel that follows the story of Gemma Doyle and her ability to tap into magical, though dark, outer realms, all I could think about was what defines true friendships for young teenage girls?
Gemma, a new arrival to her boarding school, becomes friends with powerful, popular Felicity because she accidently finds out one of Felicity’s biggest secrets. Instant friendship: go. Gemma has previously been repulsed (and fascinated) by Felicity’s treatment of other people, so she pulls her scholarship-roommate, Ann, who has been on the receiving end of Felicity’s cruelty into the mix. Instant friendship: go. Pippa is Felicity’s beautiful best friend, who is not into the idea of widening their circle, but since Felicity holds the power…instant friendship. Gemma hated the way Felicity and Pippa treated other girls. Ann was in near constant pain and loneliness as a result. Felicity cast Pippa to second chair once Gemma came around. Now, these four girls embark on dangerous, otherworldly adventures with Gemma into the realms. Can shared experiences override absolute contradictions in values?
Apparently. Though I wanted to be a hater immediately and judge Gemma for her lack of strength in succumbing to the rotten social rank at her school when she knew better, there was really no where else for her to go. It was interesting to watch these characters ultimately just want to be known by someone, and once they were, that seemed to be what bound them together as friends. They began to see that it’s harder to judge someone once you get to know them and their story.
When I look at my own friendships–the ones that have lasted over the years (not to devalue the worth of the ones that didn’t; the ones that were meant for a time and a place)–there are two major groups of people in my life: ones that I have shared experiences with (the high school version of coming of age, along with the adult version) and ones with whom I share a certain kindredness. When I started writing this post, I wanted to rage on the ridiculousness of Gemma’s friendships, but have realized that no matter what their beginnings, the four girls came to see the world in a different way together. They experienced things together that no one else would understand. And I still believe that one of the biggest joys in life is to be known and to know others. So. Despite Felicity’s power rush and Pippa’s vanity, Ann and Gemma each have their own faults, too, and in the act of living their lives as friends they came to show grace toward one another despite it all and grow as people along the way. So. Maybe I shouldn’t be such a hater.
Though, I still remain skeptic if the shallowly-based middle school friendships are up for this. And I still can’t stand watching girls exert power over one another.