NW by Zadie Smith (Penguin, $17).
Smith's 2012 masterpiece paints a wry and rueful portrait of contemporary Britain by zeroing in on a north London housing estate and a pair of lifelong friends: one hardworking but secretly reckless, the other all but sleepwalking through life. Their relationship is unforgettable; the fact that they never fully understand each other makes their mutual loyalty all the more moving.
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood (Anchor, $16).
Diabolical, irresistible Cordelia is one of Atwood's most indelible creations — the original (and worst) Mean Girl, who in the protagonist's flashbacks torments her to a near-lethal breaking point. No one else has ever conjured with such fury and precision the head games played among prepubescent girls, nor shown so well why these games' bewitched losers keep returning for more.
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill (Vintage, $16).
Alison, an ex-model, enters office life and finds herself both fascinated and repelled by the decidedly unglamorous but equally self-destructive Veronica. This ill-fitting friendship becomes a frame through which Alison looks back, to devastating effect, on the guilt-inducing ruins of her life.
An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel (Picador, $14).
Two childhood foes are uncomfortably bound to each other when they enter the forbidding realm of a Catholic school. Mantel, with heartbreaking acuity, portrays these otherwise dissimilar girls as sharing a bottomless hunger — which one manages through anorexic self-denial and the other only feeds and feeds.
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam (Ecco, $26).
Witty, perceptive, and light on its feet, this recent novel about a cross-class friendship asks if the inevitable conflicts between the protagonists have refined their connection or simply frayed it. The title's meaning, once revealed, carries the sting of a taunt expertly tossed across a cafeteria table.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Europa, $17).
In the first novel of Ferrante's celebrated Neapolitan Quartet, a bond forms early between Elena and Lila, who grow up in a violent Naples slum. One of Ferrante's many remarkable gifts is her ability to see through the eyes of her young characters, whose rich imaginations help them make sense of an often bruising reality.