book review: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

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THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez
★★★★★
Riverhead, 2018

 

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.

23 thoughts on “book review: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

  1. Sold! I had been avoiding this book for precisely the reasons you mentioned (mostly the weepy dog book one), but this review has me intrigued.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right?? I read the premise and this one got a hard nope from me, but then it kept getting nominated for things and getting rave reviews so I finally caved. So very glad I did. I eagerly await your thoughts!

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  2. I generally try to avoid books that involve pets because I just know at one point that pet might die and then, where would I be? Sobbing my heart out, that’s where. However this one does sound interesting enough. Please, tell me there isn’t a pet death. IF there isn’t, I will definitely give this one a go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • (spoilers) Unfortunately I can’t say that 😦 The part that made me cry was when the narrator was talking about putting one of her cats to sleep, ugh, that just wrecked me. And the dog is implied to die in the final sentence of the book, from old age. Still, I wouldn’t put this in the category of emotionally manipulative animal books like Marley and Me, but that said, I absolutely understand why not everyone will be able to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, boy. Hmm, I might have to be prepared for the tears then because I am very easy, you know? I cry all the time while reading books and especially when it’s something like this. My wish to read is stronger than my wish to not cry, I hope. 😂😂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Meanwhile I rarely ever cry when I read, so when a book does make me cry I’m like oh, good job writer!!! But yes, maybe this one is best avoided until you feel like you won’t mind the inevitable tears.

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