In Will Schwalbe’s memoir We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship, the wry writer of books-about-books (see The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living) turns his attention to an unexpected friendship that originated in a secret society at Yale. Unlike any secret society I’ve heard of, this one aimed at connecting very different folks in a purposeful community during their senior year of college. And members Schwalbe and Chris Maxey could hardly have been more different.
Early in the memoir, Schwalbe differentiates between nerds and jocks, positioning himself (theater kid, gay, literature major) in the former category and Maxey (wrestler, scuba diver, avid motorcyclist) in the latter. When the two met, they repelled each other like misaligned magnets; something about Maxey’s boisterous masculinity put Schwalbe on edge. But they began to listen to each other, due in part to the rituals of the society, and an unlikely trust began to form.
We Should Not Be Friends then veers from this nostalgic origin story into the rushing sweep of adulthood. Early dreams and uncertain beginnings gather momentum and fling the two friends through various adventures and, as time unfolds, into the stressful compression tunnel of middle age. Health concerns, financial concerns, marital concerns, dreams realized and abandoned, open communication and years of silence: All of it unfolds here, controlled through Schwalbe’s careful narration as he effectively shows how an fragile alliance in college yielded years of rewards.
As Schwalbe and Maxey share their lives, it’s obvious how much they support and even change each other, in part because of how different they are. “Had it not been for Maxey, the me that is here today wouldn’t be me,” Schwalbe writes, and he goes on to illustrate the peculiar familiarity that emerges between long-haul friends who have known each other across life stages, geographies and decades. If you are someone who appreciates the people in your life, especially those whose presence seems serendipitous, this book will feel at once fresh and familiar.