The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

the-friendThe unnamed narrator of The Friend is a writer and college professor. Her best friend of thirty-ish years, a fellow writer, commits suicide, and she is tasked with taking care of the dog he left behind, a Great Dane named Apollo. It’s a quiet story about her relationship with Apollo and her grief over her friend’s death.

But The Friend is as much about writing as it is about grief, and the narrative is a fascinating blend of musings about craft, literary culture, teaching, the writing process, the nature of fiction, grief, friendship, loneliness, and companionship. There are many references to writers, poets, and philosophers. It’s an unusual structure—there are lots of short sections, vignettes, thoughts, ideas, moments, but few actual scenes. But it works brilliantly, because it’s a book about how and why people write, and how and why people grieve. It’s a book about the architecture of writing and art and relationships, and the architecture of the book itself is beautiful and strange.

Though practically plotless, The Friend was compulsively readable. I think this is due to the strength of the narrative voice. The tone, throughout, is absolutely consistent. The narrator is so specific: she’s a writer, she lives alone, she’s cynical yet tender, she’s highly introspective. She can be quiet nasty, she’s sharp, and she’s constantly critiquing modern culture. She’s also curious and receptive and, though she’s in the midst of grieving, she examines her grief. Everything about her felt authentic. It didn’t matter to me that there wasn’t much of a plot. I was simply fascinated by what this woman thought.

Reading this book was like sitting quietly in a corner watching a writer struggle with how to articulate herself. There were countless lovely passages like this one:

“Sure I worried that writing about it might be a mistake. You write a thing down because you’re hoping to get a hold on it. You write about experiences partly to understand what they mean, partly not to lose them to time. To oblivion. But there’s always the danger of the opposite happening. Losing the memory of the experience itself to the memory of writing about it…So it could happen: by writing about someone lost—or even just talking too much about them—you might be burying them for good.”

I also appreciated the complexity of both the narrator and the man she’s mourning. She writes about his flaws—his affairs, his womanizing, his egoism, his mistakes. Sometimes she’s angry at him and says so; often she disapproves of his actions. But she also loved him, and misses him acutely. She certainly doesn’t idolize him, but she does not apologize for loving him, either. In my opinion, this made the book much more interesting. Sometimes humans love humans who do terrible things. This is not going to go away just because we want it to. I’m starting to realize how much I admire authors who aren’t afraid to write about characters and situations that are imperfect, challenging, morally ambiguous, multi-faceted.

There’s an odd moment at the end of the book that I’m still trying to untangle—a twist (or not, depending on how you read it). Nunez left it open-ended, which I appreciated, but it was the only moment that took me out of the story. Though I understand, perhaps, why Nunez did it, I’m not convinced it added much to the book. It was the only section that felt clunky and orchestrated, while the rest of the book was perfectly graceful, streamlined, and subtle.

Overall, The Friend was a beautifully written and surprisingly imaginative novel, and one of the best explorations of what it means to be a writer that I’ve read in some time.

3 thoughts on “The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

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  1. Hi. I found your blog b/c I thought your review of this novel was excellent on Goodreads. I just finished The Friend and I’m still going over my thoughts on it. For the most part, I liked its observations. And its topics of writing & books & how great dogs are is something I totally relate to and concur with. Still like you I gave it 3 stars on GR. I’m more a story kind of person which this had less of.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the review! It’s also nice to hear what you write is useful or resonates with someone. I agree The Friend felt more like a collection of observations than a story. Still enjoyable, if not breathtaking!

      Like

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