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  • My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism by Nancy K. Miller
  • Mary Beth Rose (bio)
My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism
Nancy K. Miller
Columbia University Press, 2019, 232 pp. ISBN 9780231190541, $28.00 hardcover.

Nancy K. Miller’s My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism is an account of her relationships with three other academic women, all well-known and celebrated for their writing and scholarly achievements. “Brilliant,” as she chooses to call them—a clear allusion to the title of the first novel of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy— indicates the intense if sometimes problematic attachments she will explore. While Miller occasionally refers to Aristotle, Montaigne, or Cicero, she is not really interested in studying the idea or history of the idea of friendship. Her book speculates intermittently on the relationship between writing a memoir and friendship. Describing her narrative framework, she invokes 1970s feminism and the belief in the political importance of personal experience it engendered. The book examines in intimate and sometimes piercing detail the nature and quality of her attachments with three women: Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook. [End Page 825]

Heilbrun, Schor, and Middlebrook are all dead, enabling Miller to give each relationship a defined shape and a completed trajectory, although all three individuals live perpetually in her mind as distinctive and often startling women. Miller’s consciousness is inevitably the frame through which we see all three women, and each relationship emerges colorfully from her viewpoint. We cannot, of course, have their responses. Having received a diagnosis of “incurable but treatable” lung cancer, Miller struggles in this memoir of lost friends with the end of writing and the end of life that they faced (4). While she grieves her three friends, and identifies with them, she herself decides temporarily to reject the position of the mourned: “I still wanted to be the subject; I wanted to be in charge of the story” (4).

“Envy has always been my fallback emotion, despite persistent efforts to root it out,” Miller explains, with considerable courage (14). Envy and disappointment indeed play starring roles in the story of the three relationships, in deep and uncomfortable conjunction with love, giving, and empathy. This impassioned intertwining, along with loss, is what gives Miller’s narrative its tension and often bittersweet interest.

One of the defining characteristics of Miller’s relationship with Heilbrun is unequal status, at least at first. When they meet, Heilbrun is a full professor at Columbia University, Miller is an untenured faculty member struggling to produce her first book: “I often felt that I provided a kind of entertainment, especially when I was miserable. It’s not that she was cruel; on the contrary. But in the distribution of roles between us, I was the wretched one dealing with life crises—tenure, infertility, depression—she was the rock” (18). Along with academic seniority, Heilbrun has more money, giving wonderful gifts while unable to accept any material presents from Miller. She has children while Miller is unable to, and she has produced more books. In one sequence, Miller reproduces all the affectionate and often witty inscriptions on the books Heilbrun has given her. In turn she recounts two anecdotes. First, she gives Heilbrun a book that is not inscribed to her and later shows her a manuscript in which it would have been relevant to mention all the ways Heilbrun helped and mentored her, but Miller does not do it. When Heilbrun expresses dismay, Miller produces a paragraph in response and shows it to Heilbrun: “I don’t remember what she said when I showed her the paragraph, but I could tell that she was still disappointed. I still can’t fully say why, why I had left her out, why that was not the story I wanted to tell. My ingratitude. Maybe I was the one who didn’t want to think of her as a mentor” (55). Miller is slim and young, while Heilbrun is middle-aged and heavy, and worries about it constantly. There are many discussions of wardrobe, including the anecdote that Heilbrun chooses in her fifties to replace the strenuous female search for fashion and beauty with...