Zahra and Maryam have been best friends since childhood in Karachi, even though—or maybe because—they are unlike in nearly every way. Yet they never speak of the differences in their backgrounds or their values, not even after the fateful night when a moment of adolescent impulse upends their plans for the future. Three decades later, Zahra and Maryam have grown into powerful women who have each cut a distinctive path through London. But when two troubling figures from their past resurface, they must finally confront their bedrock differences—and find out whether their friendship can survive.
Gentle but insistent ... If you’re worried that a novel about the longevity of childhood friendship sounds sentimental, don’t be. Tangled up with Maryam and Zahra’s relationship are questions of responsibility, justice, power and ethics ... It’s the deep-rooted and complicated bond between the two women that keeps us turning the pages ... Alive and kicking beneath the surface. Simmering gently.
At the novel’s midpoint we jump forward three decades to London in 2019. Here it becomes clear that Best of Friends is not quite a novel but more like two novellas, the first energetic and the second bland. Going from the Karachi half to the London half is like exiting an idiosyncratic local restaurant and entering a Starbucks. There’s an anonymous sleekness — almost a C.G.I.-enhanced quality — to the second section ... It begins with a pair of articles: a profile of Zahra in The Guardian and one of Maryam in Yahoo! Finance. It is an awkward device for inserting 30 years’ worth of exposition ... The elements that intensified the friendship of Elena and Lila — their rivalry, crises, lopsided distribution of gifts — are present in Best of Friends but desaturated. So is the context. Ferrante conveyed a milieu as electrically as she did a relationship. Shamsie gets close in her evocations of 1980s Karachi, but the featureless depiction of London saps the novel of structure. The drama between Zahra and Maryam plays out as if against a green screen. Without a palpable sense of where we are and when, the characters — and everything they do, the whats and whys — take on the quality of anecdotes ... Shamsie’s previous novel Home Fire was a retelling of Antigone, and readers who loved that book (as I did) might consider approaching Best of Friends with subdued expectations. There are plenty of sentences to cherish...Even without the scaffolding of a Greek tragedy, there is a version of this novel that could have worked. The lives of Zahra and Maryam don’t intrinsically lack conflict. There is plenty of fiction about people who enjoy material comforts while suffering from psychological or spiritual torments. The problem is that these two are never convincingly tormented; only hassled, and their responses are proportionately bloodless.
A covert Künstlerroman – a novel about the maturing of an artistic consciousness – hiding inside what poses as yet another Bildungsroman ... The latter part of the novel, where Zahra and Maryam are high-powered women in contemporary London, seems a misjudged appendage to the engrossing earlier narrative, a lapse into smooth globalism ... Towards the end, in the novel’s only formal experiment, newspaper interviews with the two women are presented ... It’s when Shamsie...craft[s] the vivid facts of her life into fiction, that Best of Friends is at its admirably thorniest.