The Friend, Sigrid Nunez 2018

The Friend, the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, is a beautiful novel and one that was a pleasure to spend time with.  Skillfully interweaving a number of threads—-a love story, an unsettling tale of  bereavement, a touching description of the love for an animal, ruminations about writing, suicide, and solitude–Nunez has written a winner.  I was struck upon finishing the book that none of the characters from the first person narrator to the friend/mentor/lover who has committed suicide have a name in the novel except for two—the Great Dane, Apollo and the building superintendent Hector.  The other characters, the author who kills himself (?how), his Wife 1,2, and 3, the therapist, the veterinarians, the various friends, etc go nameless and Nunez is dependent on using pronouns which occasionally leave the reader momentarily confused and leafing back a page or two to figure out who is being referred to, a practice that is surprisingly not annoying but enriching.  Ultimately, the story is one of sadness and loss especially as our narrator becomes increasingly in love with the dog, an aging Great Dane who will inevitably leave her with yet another large dose of grief.  Speculations on the many suicides among famous writers are interesting and Rilke’s definition of love appear twice in the book, first with reference to the narrator’s love for the dead writer (see, what I mean about confusion when names are not used!) and second in reference to the narrator’s love for the dog.   The ‘dead writer’s’ words are Rilke’s but they refer to the friend/lover/mentor in the story: “two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.”  Nunez leaves us with the sad but true message that we’re here briefly, we’re destined for sadness, and the challenge is to love and survive the loss of your loved one(s).  A jewel of a book.

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