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FRIENDSHIP by Joseph Epstein


An Exposé

by Joseph Epstein

Pub Date: July 5th, 2006
ISBN: 0-618-34149-8
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Veteran essayist Epstein (Envy, 2003, etc.) uses his own relationships to illustrate observations about American friendships.

The author wasn’t really sure what he thought about friendships, he admits, until he finally began writing about them. In his analysis of these “wildly complex things,” he quotes a wide range of writers and authorities, from Aristotle to F. Scott Fitzgerald (these eventually grow tiresome). He examines the meaning of the term “best friend”; he talks about ex-friends and how they got to be that way; he suggests qualities that friendships must have, such as reciprocity and loyalty; he wonders about friendships between the sexes and concludes that Freud had it wrong: There is not necessarily an erotic river flowing darkly beneath them. Epstein looks, as well, at unequal friendships, like that of Johnson and Boswell, and at relationships that exist primarily, or even exclusively, on the telephone or through e-mail. An eight-page “friendship diary” records his many (and not always illuminating) encounters with friends during a single week. He ends with a disquisition on the “art of friendship,” a segment that sometimes ventures toward the sort of self-help stuff he says he wished to avoid. He establishes a set of “rules” that includes such chestnuts as “take friends as they are.” Epstein names only a few of the folks he discusses. Saul Bellow, for example, dropped him, and Ralph Ellison, after a lovely lunch, did not reply to a couple of his overtures. There is an appealing sort of self-deprecation in much of this—at 67, Epstein knows himself pretty well—but also an off-putting abundance of self-regard.

As entertaining and illuminating as a leisurely lunch with a loquacious, literate friend.