In The Faithful Couple, the new novel from A D Miller, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Snowdrops, two young men build a close friendship travelling up the west coast of America. But it is a friendship built on shared guilt and a secret betrayal, and these dark secrets are to dog them over the two decades, even as they move on to new places in their lives.
So how to do you know who's a true friend and who's just passing through your life? Here, AD Miller shares the ten signs that you've got a friend for keeps.
When I was a teenager, I read a novel (French, I think) in which the hero gets together with his old pals. Naturally, the narrator casually observes, they and he all hated each other. What an odd thing to say about close friendships, I remember thinking. Now I get it: in any longstanding acquaintance, resentments accumulate with the affection, warmth is shot through with grudges. Here are ten things that, in the course of these essential, paradoxical relationships, our best friends do for us:
1: They tell us the truth
Because somebody has to. No, that doesn’t suit you. No, you shouldn’t have that affair. No, you’ll never make it on the stage. Yes, you drink too much. Yes, you can do better than her.
2: They lie to us
Yes, she’s wonderful - because, beyond the unwritten statute of limitations (six months, or thereabouts), you can’t criticise someone’s partner, not even your best friend’s. Or, when the situation he’s in is beyond repair: Of course this bedsit is lovely. No, there was nothing you could have done. Yes, everything will be all right.
3: They enjoy our success
You get the good news - the job, the promotion, the book deal, the doctor’s all clear—and you want to tell them, because without their witness to the event, it is somehow incomplete. And they want to know, and to congratulate you, because they know what you put into this, and how much it means.
4: They resent our success
As Gore Vidal and Morrissey both observed. Especially if you succeed in what is supposed to be their thing, not yours; if the natural order is reversed. Then your success becomes an injustice, a measure of everything they haven’t done or achieved. Friends are our yardsticks and our competition. If their success means money, that probably hurts, too, however much you think it won’t. That opportunity for niggle is another reason we need to tell them about our triumphs, and vice versa.
5: We are at our best with them
Our friends carry a trace or imprint of us at our most golden: at the moment of our maximum possibility, our funniest and our freest. That holiday; that night out. They reflect an image of ourselves at our most deserving of devotion, our most selfless.
6: They see us at our worst
Drunk. Hungover. Sacked. Jilted. Bereaved. Our true friends see us in all these conditions; they know us at our lowest, weakest and most vulnerable. But they also see us at another kind of worst: Wrong. Guilty. Remorseful. They know our secrets, and we know theirs. Sometimes the secrets and the guilt are shared. Secrecy is at the heart of friendship--which partly consists in those confidences we share with friends and no one else. Or, as one of the loyal, vindictive friends at the heart of my novel, The Faithful Couple, puts it, friendship is 'a lifelong, affectionate mutual blackmail'.
7: They matter as much as our families
The defining feature of friendship is that it is discretionary: you are friends only because you want to be, a freedom that is also your strongest bond. Unlike the obligations of family, our friendships are choices. That gives them their meaning and their strength.
8: They are our family
Few people have enough space in their life for many close friendships. And intimacy is in part a function of longevity. That means that, beyond a certain age, making new best friends is impractical. Conversely, the ones we have become hard to shed. They are repositories of our past: if we lose them, we risk severing some of ourselves, too. We end up as bound to them as to our families. They become irreplaceable—and inescapable.
9: We can count on them
To come out when we want to celebrate, even if they’re not in the mood. To come round when we’re disconsolate. To help us move flats. To lend us money. To lend us their sofa. To look after the kids when we’re in a tight spot. To care about our puny dilemmas. To keep our secrets. To make us laugh.
10: They betray us
To let us down. Only our friends can truly betrays us; the mass of people you care about less can’t do that to you, they haven’t got the power. Forgotten birthdays, unpaid debts, missed appointments, busted lies, people changing wrongly as they aged, not being who you wanted them to be… betrayal is what friends do.