Ripley asks “Will you be my friend?”

What do some of these books have in common: Charlotte’s Web, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Bridge to Terabithia, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Holes, Maniac Magee, and just about every one of the American Girl books.

Two things right off the bat come to mind. First, they are all children’s or young adult fiction. Second, they all deal with ostracized, often shy or awkward characters who try to make new friends. The motif of making friends  is very ingrained in young adult literature. Childhood is a rare moment in life when you aren’t quite sure who you are yourself, but you really want to be admired by  everyone around you. I remember the absolute terror of this experience occurring both in elementary school and again at the start of college. Those are the only two times it has happened, when I knew absolutely no one around me and had to start from the beginning, making new friends. To other people it happens more often, usually after a job or city move. Like the heroes in all of the children’s books listed above, real people know what it is like to find yourself alone in a new world and have no social structure and no prospects.  The

important thing is that, as in real life, the leads of the books above are involved in the making of friends. Pals don’t just fall into their laps.

Reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, I was struck by the scene early on when Tom shows up at an Italian village. He’s been sent there by an industrial tycoon to find the man’s errant son and encourage him to come home. Tom doesn’t really know the son all that well, and so he approaches him as a child would a potential new friend. Tom is similar to a lot of the characters in those young adult books  above: awkward, anxious, hopeful, and alone. He has an inauspicious first meeting and lunch and gets no encouragement to stick around. Dickie really doesn’t much like him. Next comes a very interesting moment that is true to life: Tom returns to his room and feels physically sick. He’s not good enough. No one likes him. How, he tritely but deeply frets, can he get this fellow to be his friend? So he plots how to approach Dickie again…


The thing is, I can’t really remember having recently read a scene like the one  in any other “adult” work of fiction. Think about it. In almost all fish out of water books, the protagonist is brought into a new world. Someone on the inside grabs his hand and says, “You! Come with me!” Some quick and famous examples: that first party in The Great Gatsby,  the Artful Dodger and Fagen in Oliver Twist, the Mad Tea Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the meeting of Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick. In all of them the main character is lonely and alone but is grabbed, sometimes literally, by a charismatic, always talkative character and propelled into a new world of friends and adventures. They all skip over the  more realistic circumstance that many singles in America can relate to, that it’s darn hard to actually meet somebody! People don’t just drop out of the sky and say, “Come with me!” More often, it is the other way around. Like Tom Ripley, many lonely people are faced with the difficult decision to approach a person completely content with their social life and entreat to be invited in.

What do you think? Have you ever read a book where the hero actually seeks out his or her friends, or is it, as I suspect, almost always the other way around? Beyond that, which is the more believable? I’ll stick my neck out there, saying it isn’t  true to life that so many charismatic secondary characters are eager to embrace all those blah narrators. The Talented Mr. Ripley is surprisingly  real. Sometimes you need to bite the bullet, stick your neck out there, and say hello.


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