Review: Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s “Big Friendship”

by Miles Raymer

Big Friendship

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman’s Big Friendship is a little book with a lot of heart. Having written an essay on the nature of friendship last year, this is a topic about which I am very passionate. Sow and Friedman’s take on the subject is energetic, and in its best moments manages to also be profound.

I’ll get my complaints out of the way before pivoting to the qualities of this book that I enjoyed. For readers like me who don’t listen to Call Your Girlfriend or share the authors’ professional or cultural interests, there’s a frustrating amount of filler content. Like many people who work in media and have podcasts, Sow and Friedman think the details of their lives and their relationship are more interesting than they actually are. This short text is replete with unfunny play-by-plays of inane events, many of which feel only loosely related to the subject matter. Sow and Friedman also include a fair number of excerpts from texts and emails that are decidedly obnoxious. The book’s strongest sections occur when they engage with research and other writers, and I wish they’d included more of that and less about their personal lives. Perhaps this just indicates that, despite my considerable investment in the theory and practice of friendship, I’m not really the target audience for this book.

Another potential downside is Sow and Friedman’s obvious political and cultural biases. This book is unapologetically feminist/antiracist/leftist, which isn’t a dealbreaker for me but might be for other readers. The authors seem like decent people, but they also have no problem making fun of and writing off people who don’t share their personal values and political goals. In this way, Big Friendship is a product of its time––reflective of the deep and often-insurmountable disagreements that permeate modern America.

Despite these drawbacks, open-minded readers will learn a lot from engaging with Sow and Friedman’s personal experiences, which ably highlight the often-downplayed importance of friendship in human life. They begin with an epigraph to define their titular term:

Big Friendship is a bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcends life phases, geography, and emotional shifts. It is large in dimension, affecting most aspects of each person’s life. It is full of meaning and resonance. A Big Friendship is reciprocal, with both parties feeling worthy of each other and willing to give of themselves in generous ways. A Big Friendship is active. Hearty. And almost always, a Big Friendship is mature. Its advanced age commands respect and predicts its ability to last far into the future. (Epigraph)

This opening passage demonstrates the clean and direct style in which Big Friendship is written, as well as Sow and Friedman’s warm tone. They adopt a “we” voice when expressing shared sentiments, but also refer to one another in the third person to leave room for their respective viewpoints and life stories (xviii). This somewhat unusual style could have muddied the message if done sloppily, but they pull it off nicely. The reader easily gets a sense of Sow and Friedman as distinct individuals who also speak as a singular friend-unit.

By far the best aspect of Big Friendship is how it provides a vocabulary for people to talk about friendship in all its complicated glory. Anyone who begins to study friendship quickly learns that our modes of thinking and speaking about it are grossly underdeveloped compared to the language we use to discuss familial and romantic relationships; Sow and Friedman’s effort to fill this cultural lacuna is much needed. The central concepts are “chosen family” (I prefer “logical family”), “Shine Theory,” “stretching,” and “friendweb.” Definitions here:

For us…”chosen family” describes intimate relationships that are freely selected. (52)

We came to define Shine Theory as an investment, over the long-term, in helping a friend be their best––and relying on their help in return. It is a conscious decision to bring our full selves to our friendships and to not let insecurities or envy ravage them. It’s a practice of cultivating a spirit of genuine happiness and excitement when our friends are doing well, and being there for them when they aren’t. (70)

Stretching is the best metaphor we’ve come up with to describe all the ways our friends expand our world, challenge us, and inspire us to change. This give-and-take is necessary from the very beginning because no two people are exactly alike. Life inevitably brings changes. And those changes often shift the foundation on which the friendship was built. That’s just how it is. You are not the person you were 10 years ago, and you won’t be the exact same person in the next decade. For a Big Friendship to survive, it has to adapt. (90)

We have an ever-changing, interconnected web of friends. It’s not something that’s easily captured in a photo, but the friendweb is a helpful visual representation of the complex ways that the people we love connect and relate to each other. It encompasses our friends from childhood, college, places we’ve worked, various cities we’ve lived in, and social groups we’ve moved through. (102)

Sow and Friedman also borrow a handy metaphor from a New Yorker essay by David Sedaris, which portrays adult life as the attempt to skillfully manage four stovetop burners that represent family, friends, health, and work. They offer a fair critique of the idea and argue that friendship shouldn’t be treated as the obvious burner that is “first to go” when time and energy become scarce:

The stove metaphor might describe how some time-strapped adults think of their lives, but it only takes into account your energy output, not what you receive in return from each of these important areas of life. Although the metaphor makes it seem very clear, our lives are not easily separated into pots that can be placed on separate burners. Extinguishing friendship has consequences for every other aspect of life. (188)

Big Friendship rightly asserts that friendship is a serious and worthwhile commitment. Toward the end, Sow and Friedman discuss the process of undergoing couples therapy together when they felt like their relationship was on the brink of failure. They also drive home the important lesson that friendships require regular attention and care:

There is no autopilot mode for a Big Friendship. You just have to keep showing up. Active friendships require active maintenance. You don’t get to sit back, do nothing, and enjoy the benefits of a meaningful relationship––any relationship. But action is especially important to friendship, which carries no familial expectations or marriage license. If you don’t take action to mark it as important and keep it alive, a friendship will not survive. (192)

Sow and Friedman have no trouble being open about how much they love each other, and they want everyone else to feel the same way about their friends. Big Friendships should be fun and relaxing for the most part, but they also provide indispensable opportunities for mutual betterment, support, and growth:

One thing we tell each other a lot is “I love your brain.” It’s our way of saying, “You’re smart, you’re clever, I want to hear what you think about everything.” From the earliest days of our friendship, we were each fascinated by the way the other organized her thoughts and ideas, and we wanted to know each other’s opinion about every single thing. This feeling has never faded away. Even today as we talk to each other, we swear we can feel ourselves sharpening in real time, getting a clearer sense of the world around us and our place within it. (141-2)

You get to be seen for who you really are. You get the security of a safe harbor. You get the satisfaction of knowing that you chose each other and continue to choose each other every day. You get to know yourself deeper than you ever thought possible, thanks to this external mirror in the form of your friend. (204-5)

Big Friendship doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to our general understanding of human relationships, but it brings Friendship to the table in a Big way.

Rating: 6/10