BIG FRIENDSHIP: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. A review by Nina Badzin.
As a friendship advice columnist and a longtime listener of the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend (“a podcast for long-distance besties everywhere”) co-hosted by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, I was eager to read Big Friendship (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Sow’s and Friedman’s recently-released memoir about the ups and downs of their friendship and the need to take friendship as seriously as we take romantic and familial relationships.
In other words, I am the ideal audience for this book.
Big Friendship, has the tagline, “How We Keep Each Other Close” in large capital letters. Readers shouldn’t be surprised that staying close takes work. Even the best of friends like Sow and Friedman have to fight internally to move on from layers of real and perceived slights. Reading about their real-life examples, however, could help people who are tempted to let a friendship drift apart when things get hard to the point where a friendship ends.
Sow’s and Friedman’s strong chemistry and mutual desire to become and remain close didn’t spare them from actually drifting apart at one point for a variety of reasons. If not for their willingness to work on their issues—in their case, in therapy—I could see a scenario in which they went their separate ways. I have an inbox full of anonymous letters for my column from people whose friendships are beyond repair. Many friendships do end, and at least one party is haunted by the friendship for years, even decades.
Sow and Friedman take us through highs and lows of their friendship and talk to experts who speak about friendship in general to discuss how at certain times the work to keep a friendship on track feels harder than others.
I especially liked the chapters that introduced logical and helpful friendship lexicon to describe the ways we get along with those close to us such as “stretching” to accommodate others, but being careful to know the difference between “stretching” and “straining.” Shine Theory (“I don’t shine if you don’t shine”) gets an entire chapter. The term “Big Friendship” is its own special term describing a friendship like Sow’s and Friedman’s, one so central that drifting apart permanently is not an option. I could see some readers asking themselves if a friendship should be this much work, and it’s a fair point. The answer won’t be the same for everyone.
Big Friendship is part memoir, part self-help, and it’s written in a “we” voice, which Friedman mentions in one of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast episodes this summer was an interesting exercise in seeing things completely from someone else’s point of view. Some readers might connect with the memoir chapters more than the self-help ones and vice versa.
I enjoyed the details of how Sow and Friedman met then acted on their friendship chemistry to become more than mere social media or “friendweb” acquaintances. Of all the specific details of their friendship, however, I most appreciated the chapter on how Sow and Friedman navigated being in an interracial friendship, including the challenge of making sure the person of color in a friendship isn’t the one doing all the “stretching” to use Sow’s and Friedman’s term. I would have liked more on that topic and less details on their childhoods and work lives in the early chapters. I also found the parts about the pettiness and jealousy and complication that can happen in the “friendweb” particularly compelling as well as the challenges of chronic illness and geographical distance in a friendship.
As I read, I was eager to get to the part mentioned earlier in the book about Sow and Friedman going to therapy to repair their damaged friendship, and I do wish it had arrived sooner in the narrative. I fear some readers will grow impatient and miss the essential chapters. When we finally get to that piece of the story, we see that it isn’t a dramatic event that caused a rift in their friendship. More so and realistically for so many friend pairs, it was a build up of small hurts that added together made each feel distant from the other. In many cases, this is where friends drift apart, and I appreciated the pushback on taking the easy road of dropping a friend.
Overall Big Friendship made me think about what it would be like to write about certain friendships in my life from the-how-we-met, to the-how-we-got-estranged, to the-how-we-came-back-together (or in some cases, didn’t). Readers who have struggled to understand what it really takes to give platonic bonds the care they need to thrive will learn quite a bit from this book. Readers who know about that hard work already and want to feel affirmed in the time and energy they put into their friendship will enjoy Big Friendship, too.
Nina Badzin wrote the friendship advice column at HerStories for several years before continuing the column at advice.ninabadzin.com. She’s still taking questions and is ready to tackle your friendship dilemmas. She leads creative writing groups at ModernWell in Minneapolis and reviews books on Instagram at @readwithninaB. You can also find her on Twitter @NinaBadzin.