‘Friends’ by Grace Paley

This story is a masterclass in dialogue and an experiment in creating a collective narrator. Paley based the structure on her own female friends whose lives were so intertwined. In the story they exist as a many-voiced entity in which each knows the thoughts of the others, or believes they do. Faith, the first person ‘narrator’, Susan and Ann, are on a five-hour train journey home from visiting their friend Selena, who is dying. The milestones of life are filtered through their responses to Serena’s illness at the end of a complicated life; discovering she was an adoptee, the death of her daughter, the love of a married man. “A few hot human truthful words” are desired by Ann to wipe away the messiness they are left with, but the story doesn’t allow for clean conclusions.

First published in The New Yorker in 1979 and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Later the Same Day, 1985 and the Collected Stories, Virago Modern Classics, 2018

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