What do women want? Well, Dr. Freud, your alleged puzzlement over this question can be answered in three little words: a best friend. Few generalizations are as...

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What do women want?

Well, Dr. Freud, your alleged puzzlement over this question can be answered in three little words: a best friend.

Few generalizations are as safe as this one. Whether right-winger or socialist, bimbo or bookworm, Earth mama or corporate moneychanger, a woman lives and dies by her girlfriends. These sisters-by-choice share the shorthand of kindred spirits. A true girlfriend is an emotional gyroscope: cheerleader and tough-love dispenser. She is, above all, a valued Sherpa on life-changing journeys from regrettable tattoos and all-meat diets to motherhood and hormone-replacement therapy.

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As three new and very different books demonstrate, there are countless ways friendship can be parsed in order to fathom women and what we want from our closest platonic friends.

“The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore”
by Marla Paul (Rodale; $12.95, 214 pp.)

At first blush, “The Friendship Crisis” is reminiscent of those baffling magazines for fitness walkers. (If you need advice on walking, perhaps you’re just not the exercising type?) But stay with this earnest book for a bit and it will grow on you.

Paul is a good coach for the newly divorced or widowed woman, the lonely stay-at-home mom or the childless woman feeling left out by her friend’s new motherhood. She’s also right on the money as she wryly sums up the plight of the writer working at home:

“In downtown offices, women in stylish clothes are hustling, laughing, and ordering sushi for lunch. You, however … brush the Danish crumbs off your pajamas, and can’t understand why you feel so unmotivated.”

Her guidance for forging new connections isn’t rocket science; this is the sort of gentle prodding you might get from, yes, a wise friend. She understands one of the chief delights of close girl-friendship is the freedom to fling personal stories back-and-forth with abandon, but urges a gradual pace with new acquaintances: “Too much too soon crushes a fledgling relationship, like an avalanche on a fragile frame.”

The “Friendship Boosters and Busters” chapter steers the reader away from bad bets such as the “serial canceller,” and the always-jealous friend. Paul warns of foisting personal standards on someone you know sets the bar in a different place.

Her classic example: Getting irked at the otherwise attentive friend who never sends a card on your birthday, while you practically keep Hallmark in business. Small stuff? Sure, but as Paul knows, small stitches hold close friendships together.

“The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women’s True Life Tales of Friendships that Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away”
edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell (Doubleday; $24.95, 320 pp.) Happenings both small and cataclysmic enrich and define this upcoming essay collection. (It’s scheduled to debut May 17.) This is a fine bunch of diverse recollections which, as the slightly overwrought subtitle indicates, tend toward unhappy endings.

“The loss of a friendship can be nearly as painful as a bitter divorce or death,” write the editors in the foreword. “And yet it is a strange sort of heartbreak, one that is rarely discussed, even in our tell-all society.” Contributors include Emily Chenoweth, Beverly Gologorsky, Diane Abu Jaber, Katie Roiphe, Emily White and several other writers, and there isn’t a clunker essay in the book. This is a symphonic collection; voices that stand alone, yet blend nicely into something richer as they recount memories of friendships lost.

One of the most appealing aspects of close female connections — a phenomenon highlighted throughout “The Friend Who Got Away” — is the freedom such friends feel to exchange and archive the smallest personal details about each other. The fact that any number of middle-aged women can remember the exact color, placement (and maybe even the telephone number) of their junior-high best-friend’s princess phone — a source of envy even today — just proves the point.

“The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life; A Novel”
by Mike Albo with Virginia Heffernan (Bloomsbury; $21.95, 164 pp.)

Of course, not all details are preserved with loving, or even benign stewardship by our friends. The ability to turn the most innocent info into a sharp-edged knife is one ghastly form of fallout from a friendship, and its not-so-friendly imitators.

This satiric riff by co-writers Mike Albo (who brought the “Best Friend” character to life in his stand-up comedy routine) and Virginia Heffernan, a TV critic for The New York Times, is a one-note book, but it’s a very true note, and the book is painfully funny in places, especially when read aloud.

“The Underminer” follows two acquaintances from college days forward, recording their chance meetings through one-sided dialogue both absurd and believable:

“You’re having a Bloody Mary? No. I’m not drinking anymore. I’ll just have a simple peppermint tea … No, go ahead and go for it. Don’t let me stop you. I’ve just realized there’s a little more to life. But go ahead, have fun. You’re so crazy!”

The authors intend the dialogue to be gender-neutral, but any woman reading this will come away sure it is two women. (A promise: You will hear the dialogue in the exact voice of a truly toxic “girlfriend” you have known. We’ve all had one.)

Not all of the humor here is mean, some of it is just plain stupid. And accurate. And embarrassingly familiar.

Who among us has not uttered a platitude as obnoxious as this one? (Perhaps exactly this one.) “I think your body looks good. It’s normal. It’s a normal body. People get too hung up on thinness. You’re more like a typical American.”

Reading these three books back-to-back, while not something that is actually recommended mind you, does illuminate this business of friendship under a good, strong light.

Different as they are, these books remind us of something that is very important: The bonds between friends are precious things, strong but not unbreakable, enriching but not risk-free.

“The tango isn’t always easy,” concludes author Marla Paul. “But it’s worth it.”