Can You See Me? Imaginary Friendships | The Reader’s Shelf, February 1, 2012

Imaginary friends have long been omnipresent in juvenile novels, often helping the main character overcome loneliness. While not as readily visible in adult fiction, these fantastical friends exist here as well, but they are not always comforting companions. Invisible fellows can add dramatic tension to a work or create dark and troubling scenarios. However, some hold true to their childish roots and add a touch of whimsy and charm to an otherwise normal life. Be a pal, and dip into these books filled with see-through characters.

One of Ray Bradbury’s short story gems is Zero Hour, collected here in BRADBURY STORIES: 100 OF HIS MOST CELEBRATED TALES (Morrow. 2005. ISBN 9780060544881. pap. $17.99). The tale revolves around a suburban New York family during one summer. Mother remains indoors staying cool, while her daughter plays outside with several neighbor children. Their game, Invasion, involves an imaginary friend who asks the children to gather objects for building special machines. Initially ignoring the game, Mother soon learns from a Connecticut friend that her neighborhood children are also playing this strange game. Through his poetic yet spare style and his masterly sense of the unnerving, Bradbury gives readers a delicious frisson of fear mixed with the sheer pleasure of surprise.

In Joanne Harris’s luscious fable CHOCOLAT (Penguin. 2000. ISBN 9780140282030. pap. $15), the charming and enchanting chocolatier Vianne Rocher seduces much of her French village with chocolate that seems to remedy many ills. While Vianne is occupied with opening her luxurious shop, her six-year-old daughter, Anouk, relies on an imaginary pet rabbit named Pantoufle, whom kindly octogenarian neighbor Armande claims she can see as well. As tension builds in the village over the witchy qualities of Vianne’s chocolate, Pantoufle is Anouk’s bulwark against the troubles that loom in her world.

Long on charm is Cecelia Ahern’s IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW (Hyperion. 2007. ISBN 9781401308667. pap. $13.95). Elizabeth, of County Cork, Ireland, is a stressed interior designer raising her young nephew, Luke. When Luke starts to talk of Ivan, his invisible buddy, Elizabeth begins to worry, but then she sees him, too. Who is Ivan and how does he manage to fill their once restrained lives with just the spark they need? Ahern’s lighthearted and tender story offers adult readers the chance to imagine life infused with their own invisible friend, in this case one who has the art of living well in hand.

The adage the cobbler’s children go barefoot springs to mind with Anjali Banerjee’s IMAGINARY MEN (Pocket:
S. & S. 2005. ISBN 9781416509431. pap. $16.99), a fun Indian version of chick lit. Fed up with her family’s heavy-handed pressure to marry, Lina, a single San Francisco matchmaker, informs her relatives of her own engagement to a rich and dashing gentleman. As said fiancé does not exist, Lina is in a bind when her aunt announces she will travel to America to approve the match. Things go from bad to worse when Lina actually collides with the man of her dreams, the dashing Prince Raja. How unfortunate that she’s already engaged.

J.D. Salinger’s bitter and acerbic Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut, included in NINE STORIES (Back Bay: Little, Brown. 2001. ISBN 9780316767729. pap. $13.99), relates the dis¬¨appointed life of ¬¨Eloise, a suburban Connecticut housewife, through a conversation with her old college friend, Mary Jane. As the two toss back highballs and take an alcohol-infused meander down memory lane, readers learn of Eloise’s lost loves and wasted life. Meanwhile, Eloise’s young daughter, Ramona, whose imaginary playmate Jimmy unexpectedly dies in a car accident on the day of Mary Jane’s visit, imagines a new companion, only to face her mother’s disdain.

Pop Art (a pun of a title) is one of the disturbing stories in Joe Hill’s 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS (Morrow. 2008. ISBN 9780061147982. pap. $13.95). Arthur Roth, an inflatable boy made of plastic skin, weighs just six ounces and has no organs. He can’t talk and must communicate with crayons as a sharpened pencil could mean death. Being inflatable is being vulnerable not just to pencils and other sharp objects but also to bullies at school. Yet Art has one good friend, the narrator, who tells Art’s story with touching grace. Inspired by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Bernard Malamud, and his own father, Stephen King, the author spins his allegory by twisting fantasy and horror elements into a disquieting, surreal meditation on loneliness.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at