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Female Frenemies in Literature and Reality: Background information when reading The Villa

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The Villa

A Novel

by Rachel Hawkins

The Villa by Rachel Hawkins X
The Villa by Rachel Hawkins
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2023, 288 pages

    Nov 2023, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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About this Book

Female Frenemies in Literature and Reality

This article relates to The Villa

Print Review

In Rachel Hawkins's novel The Villa, childhood best friends Emily Sheridan and Chess Chandler decide to spend the summer together amid the splendor of Villa Aestas in Italy. Although the two women have fallen a bit out of touch over the years, this summer offers a chance for them to reconnect while combining work and play. But when Emily begins investigating and writing about the villa's bloody history, Chess's behavior changes, and as secrets—both past and present—are uncovered, Emily can't help but wonder if Chess is the friend she claims to be.

Although Emily and Chess initially began as friends, their relationship, as evidenced by the novel's opening line, has shifted to something closer to frenemies: "Somewhere around the time she started calling herself 'Chess,' I realized I might actually hate my best friend." Frenemy, or "frienemy" as it was originally spelled, is a portmanteau of "friend" and "enemy," with a perhaps predictable definition: "a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy." The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first use of the term in an 1891 article in The Champion newspaper out of Norton, Kansas, but the use of the word has grown substantially over the past two decades, largely due to the influence of social media and cyberbullying.

Still from Mean Girls film showing four teenage girlsAlthough the term "frenemies" has been used to describe relationships between co-workers, business competitors and even countries at odds with one another, the word is most often used to describe a toxic relationship between two women. Novelist and essayist Lucina Rosenfeld attributes this sexist designation to women's tendency to overshare, thus giving their frenemies information with which to wound; men, Rosenfeld claims, are more likely to work out their issues via direct competition, a claim that is substantiated by science. Much like their older counterparts, adolescent girls are experiencing a rise in frenemy relationships, and psychologists have begun specifically providing advice on helping girls deal with relational aggression and the "mean girl" phenomenon.

The rise of real-life frenemies also presents a prime example of art imitating life. As understanding of frenemies and toxic relationships has grown, so has their appearance in fiction. Although readers might try to steer clear of frenemy relationships in real life, they prove magnetic on the pages of contemporary psychological thrillers and mystery novels. Fictional frenemy relationships commonly form when friends share a secret, when there's a power imbalance, or both. After all, who better to stab you in the back than the friend who's known you since that kindergarten dance class? Who better to threaten your happily-ever-after than the down-on-her-luck bestie who helped you bury a body and now needs some help finding her own fairytale ending?

And stories that answer those types of questions are exactly what modern readers seem to want. Fiction featuring frenemies have become winners of Goodreads Choice Awards (The Guest List, Lisa Foley; Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid; Carrie Soto is Back, Taylor Jenkins Reid), by being picked for Reese Witherspoon's book club (The Guest List, Lisa Foley; Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid; The Last House Guest, Megan Miranda; The Last Mrs. Parrish, Liv Constantine) or as a Book of the Month Club selection (That's What Frenemies are For, Sophie Littlefield & Lauren Gershell; All the Dangerous Things, Stacy Willingham; Reckless Girls, Rachel Hawkins), and by earning spots on the New York Times bestseller list (Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid). Others have been optioned for television adaptations (Never Have I Ever, Joshilyn Jackson) or movies (The Lying Game, Ruth Ware) or been chosen as the focus of a panel at a writer's festival (The Woman in the Library, Sulari Gentill; Dirt Town, Hayley Scrivenor).

Although real-life frenemy relationships are unhealthy—literally: researchers have linked interactions with frenemies to increased blood pressure, increased risk of depression and decreased resistance to stress—readers have grown to love the fictionalized version. Rachel Hawkins's newest leading ladies may love and despise each other in equal measure, but the back-and-forth between them adds tension to the narrative and keeps the story moving at a heart-stopping pace. The frenemy relationship featured in The Villa is a standout example of the best and the worst a lifelong friendship can offer and places Hawkins's latest novel at the heart of the popular "mean girls" genre of fiction.

Still from Mean Girls, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Filed under Reading Lists

Article by Jordan Lynch

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Villa. It originally ran in February 2023 and has been updated for the November 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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