Good friends should learn the value of silence

<i>Friends and Enemies: our need to love and hate </i>by Dorothy Rowe (HarperCollins, &pound;19.99)
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The Independent Culture

An investigation into the politics and meaning of friendship? You can hear the salty response thrown over the office divider: only someone with no real mates could ever be bothered with that.

An investigation into the politics and meaning of friendship? You can hear the salty response thrown over the office divider: only someone with no real mates could ever be bothered with that.

It's true that, these days, friendship is the emotional regime of everyday life, an inescapable compulsion. Entire media empires are launched on the spectacle of people "being friends" - larging it in Ibiza, being witty across a sofa in Seattle, moaning at each other in a closed-off compound, and all TV genres in between. The sociology is pretty easy. In a mobile society, in which all certainties of class, gender and location are melting down, friendship becomes the glue that connects "free agents" together.

And where there's a social trend, there's usually a self-help book to untangle our confusions. Even more than Susie Orbach, Dorothy Rowe is the British queen of therapy. Yet, although Friends and Enemies would seem tailored for the Ally McBeal generation, it's actually one of the most curious non-fiction books of the past few years. For if ever anyone needed some self-help, it's Dorothy Rowe the public intellectual.

Over more than 500 pages, Rowe launches herself not just at friendship - a big enough topic - but at enmity also. What might have worked as two separate books becomes, at one sitting, a headache-inducing sprawl. Most of the headache comes from Rowe's characteristic style - an infuriating and sloppy mixture of shop-counter moralism, academic pedantry, unfocused storytelling and excessive citation of sources. It's like being trapped in a lift with a professor of psychotherapy who has been slipped a truth serum and inflicts every stray thought on their hapless victim.

Out of the endless blather, some useful new insights about modern friendship can be extracted. Rowe has some reasonable new mind-science to lean on. Her core analysis is that all humans cope with the world via their "meaning structure", a necessarily rickety edifice. Our sense of self is loose enough to enable us to form deep and lasting connections with other people - but also fragile enough to turn into a citadel of hatred if our structures are threatened.

There is no doubt that Rowe is a fine listener, a humane woman and a natural healer. And there is obvious worth in entering crisis situations (Rowe's favourite locale is a bar in Lebanon) and asking battle-weary participants about their innermost feelings and anxieties in order to reveal the emotional roots beneath thorny ideologies. If the book had been tightened around such material, it might have been more useful.

As it is, Friends and Enemies feels like a therapy session rather than a literary artefact. On and on Rowe goes, in artless, anodyne prose that scrambles the senses and exhausts the patience. Her conclusion about how we become friendlier people in a more peaceful world - "don't be anything you think you should be, or that others think you should be, just be" - is rooted in her mind-science. But it comes across as the worst kind of New-Age-speak.

There is a different Dorothy Rowe struggling to break free from the benign, motherly figure on the back cover - a cosmopolitan intellectual who cites quantum physics and evolutionary psychology, who revels in both Susan Greenfield and JM Coetzee, and who is occasionally on the verge of synthesising her psychology with a radical political analysis. Yet she always descends into some unsourced homily about her friends and family, scrambling the argument.

To risk a little literary therapy, it's as if Rowe has her own huge psychic divide - between her need to seem like Mother Ordinary, everyone's garrulous confessor-friend, and her evident intellectual ambition. You can't deny that over the years Rowe has helped many lost souls (celebrity endorsements from Fay Weldon, Nigella Lawson and Tim Lott sum up her effectiveness). But the therapist is clearly working out her own problems here. Really good friends should know when silence - or at least some judicious editing - is the better option.