Elizabeth Day has found her niche as an astute, approachable social anthropologist, observing emotions and behaviour we are reluctant to discuss – such as failure – and draining them of their stigma. Her new book tackles the subject of friendship, which she points out has been far less analysed than romantic relationships. Her honesty and her ability to listen make her an endearing narrator and charming interviewer.
She examines why friendship has always been so important to her. Admirers of her previous book, How to Fail, will recall that her childhood involved a stint at a Belfast boarding school where she was bullied, an experience she touches on again here. As well as making one feel defensive of her (I experienced a similar shaming over a school photo), it explains her drive to make friends. There is much comfort in being loved when you have been inexplicably treated badly as a child.
Many one-time outsiders develop a hyper-acute desire to help others, and so it is with Day. But she acknowledges that she must not spread herself too thinly by having a vast number of friends and being unable to fulfil their, or her own, requirements. She recognises that friends need nurturing and quality time. We learn how boundaries are vitally important – one has to make room for those one loves the most, otherwise one is constantly irked by feeling obliged to be there for less close friends – and how overlooking repeated bad behaviour is not the magnanimous, harmless act it may seem.
Day writes movingly about her harrowing miscarriage. Some trauma victims will identify with the way she tried to carry on without making time to grieve. Many people feel guilty if they voice their needs or can’t perform, whether at work, at home or socially.