Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.
This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.
Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.
I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.
A canine inheritance
The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.
The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.
But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.
That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?
This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.
These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.
I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.
The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.