THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez
Even after its National Book Award win I was hesitant to pick up The Friend, which I feared would be saccharine and emotionally manipulative, the two reasons I tend to avoid books about animals. Mercifully it was nothing of the sort, and it was in fact nothing at all like I was expecting, but I was utterly enchanted by it.
The Friend follows an unnamed narrator whose best friend has just committed suicide, and in the midst of processing her own grief she’s entreated to look after her friend’s dog, a massive Great Dane. Animals aren’t allowed in her rent controlled Manhattan apartment, but she feels a certain loyalty to this dog which won’t allow her to give him up. But the plot itself is never really the focus; this is instead a philosophical book that mainly uses its premise as backdrop for its thematic conceits, and admittedly I understand why that doesn’t work for a lot of readers, and why The Friend has been a divisive read, but my god did I love it.
This book is filled with beautifully crafted sentences (more understated than lyrical) that meditate on certain questions about grief and loss and friendship and writing that plague the narrator. Unable to make sense of her friend’s sudden death, she’s encouraged by her therapist to write about it (does writing actually help us process grief – another question interrogated by the narrator throughout the novel), and the result is the book that the reader is holding. At times I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t a memoir; the verisimilitude of the narrative voice was eerie, she’d mention a certain article she once wrote and I’d think ‘that sounds interesting, I’ll have to look that up’ before remembering this was all fictional. The integration of literary allusions, another element that I think may vex certain readers with its frequency, I thought was done in a wonderfully authentic way, and the various writers mentioned gave me a good sense of how this character interacted with the world.
I just thoroughly loved this, and though it brought me to tears at one point, it certainly isn’t a ‘weepy dog book,’ so if that’s what’s been keeping you away from this one I’d highly encourage you to give it a try – provided that you don’t mind your novels heavier on philosophy than plot. There’s also an ingeniously executed twist(?) in the penultimate chapter that allows you to read the entire book in one of two ways, and ambiguous endings (when done well) are always my favorites. This book is smart and emotionally honest all at once, my favorite combination.