There’s not much ordinary humans love more than ogling rich people. On reality television, on prime time, as they run our governments and corporations, we of humbler socioeconomic status can’t look away from the 1% and the gleam of their golden safety nets. Obviously, there’s vicarious living at play—the question of where we’d go in the private jet and what we’d buy with the unlimited credit. For the most part we can only imagine, but occasionally, two unlikely paths will cross and one of us normies is invited into the fold. But can rich people and poor people actually be friends?
Of all the identity divergence in a friendship, a difference in finances is especially insidious. Money is power, and it can be hard to untangle its influence. Having a rich friend can mean anything from all-inclusive vacations to unwillingly maxing out your own credit card at a group dinner, from networking ins to being fully responsible for the legal ramifications of a joint bad decision. After all, rich people don’t live in the same world as the rest of us, and they certainly don’t suffer the same consequences—just ask F. Scott Fitzgerald.
My new novel, Maddalena and the Dark, features two protagonists of vastly different socioeconomic standing. One, a nameless orphan, befriends the other, a nobly born girl from an influential family. Although both see their fortunes rise and fall over the course of the book, there’s never a question of who stands to suffer most. We like to think our rich friend is just like us, but in literature as in life, the following books show how finite our affinities can be.
The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi
Indigo and Azure are best friends—almost like sisters, but for the mansion and enormous fortune Indigo has inherited from her parents, while Azure lives modestly in her mom’s terrible boyfriend’s house. As they grow, the girls navigate the usual growing pains of adolescent friendship, with the additional complexities of fairy tale kingdoms and the occasional private jet. When the book opens, Indigo is an adult drinking diamond martinis, and we’ve no clue what’s happened to Azure. The alternating past and present story lines tighten the woven noose of money and power until the teenage friends are forced into an irrevocable choice.
Social Engagement by Avery Carpenter Forrey
Callie and Virginia grew up spending summers together in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, where they became fast friends. The fact that Callie lived in a cottage while Virginia lived next door to Taylor Swift doesn’t really seem to matter until they become roommates in their twenties, crashing together at Virginia’s parents’ Upper East Side condo. There, Callie quickly succumbs to the pressures of keeping up with Virginia’s monied crowd, growing ever more resentful as Virginia appears unencumbered by the practical considerations of an average person’s life. Billed as a book about weddings, this clever novel is just as much about the unspoken truths between friends.
White Ivy by Susie Yang
In this contemporary reimagining of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Ivy Lin is raised by her struggling immigrant family in a low-income housing complex outside of Boston. When she ends up at an exclusive prep school, she gets a taste for privilege that will guide her every choice moving forward. As an adult she reconnects with the wealthy Sylvia Speyer, whose brother Gideon represents everything Ivy idolizes in the American elite. In this book, it’s the have-nots who claw their way up, no matter the emotional and ethical cost. Friendship struggles to compete with the machinations of successful social climbing.
Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson
Scholarship kid Lillian and monied Madison went to boarding school together, good friends until Lillian took the fall for Madison’s mistakes and got expelled in her place. Years later, Madison comes back into Lillian’s life with an unusual request—come nanny her twin stepchildren who are suffering emotional trauma after their birth mother’s death, and also sometimes spontaneously burst into flame. Lillian takes the gig because she’s broke (a classic poor friend move), but as she guides the children through their father’s political aspirations and their stepmother’s selfishness, she starts to wonder if this job isn’t what she’s long been looking for.
These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever
Behind every sociopath is a rich kid whose parents just don’t understand them, and their less charismatic but intensely loyal friend. So posits this deliciously creepy novel, in which friends Julian and Paul challenge each other emotionally, intellectually, and sexually into ever more violent situations. Julian comes from money, and a series of scenes in which poor “uncultured” Paul visits the family estate will remain seared in my memory.
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam
Sarah is rich and Lauren is pretty, and together their friendship is a fascinating examination of avoidance and envy and the long leash of familiarity, even as lives diverge. Once inseparable, the two women grow apart as Sarah leans into her paint-by-numbers socialite existence, while Lauren flounders with the realities of an uncertain future. But once friends, always friends—at least nominally—and the two maintain a nuanced and fully human bond in this witty examination of what holds us together despite ourselves.
Devotion by Madeline Stevens
Can an employer be a friend? That’s the question Ella must ask herself when her relationship with Lonnie, whose child she’s hired to take care of, begins to blur professional lines. Both women are the same age, yet Lonnie has everything—a brownstone, an adoring husband, luxurious vacations—while Ella is literally scrounging for her next meal. Ella’s fascination with Lonnie curdles into obsession, and while her digging around leans somewhat Single White Female, her fixation on Lonnie’s expesnive skincare products is totally understandable.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Sometimes your friend is also your boyfriend, who unbeknownst to you just so happens to be from an obscenely wealthy family. As Rachel follows Nick home to Singapore and the previously undisclosed family palace, she fends off skeptical mothers and snobby friends, navigating wild opulence and old-seated rivalries. Luckily she has Peik Lin, her best friend from college, who might be “unsophisticated” New Money but knows how to shower Rachel with expensive clothing. While Nick’s family sends Rachel on a rollercoaster ride, her bond with Peik Lin stays steady.