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The Friend, A Novel by Sigrid Nunez

January 27, 2019

 

Sandra Ann Heath (author of Unrest: A Coming-of-Age Story Beneath the Alborz Mountains)
 

I finished reading this wonderful book on the way home from UNH after visiting my son, Connor, and taking him to lunch at Ri Ra in Portsmouth. It was so good, I couldn't put it down but had to (for lunch); it was so moving. Almost all narration. About suicide. Rather, the focus of the book was about friendship, love and loyalty. A novel about a writer, with references to great literature, so perfect for me. The main character is in love with a man she is not married to and does not seem to realize she is in love with him at all (until her therapist tells her so). The man was once her college professor and has died by "self-homicide". She inherits his dog, an 180-pound Great Dane named Apollo with bereavement issues, like she. She's only had cats before. She likes both cats and dogs but cats are more suited to her life-style and small NYC apartment that does not allow dogs.

 

Spoiler alert.  ....  If you are going to read this novel, please skip the rest of this review.

 

There is one passage in the novel where you may gather that instead of the narrator's life story as it is happening you could be reading a fictionalized story that the narrator/main character in the book has actually written as part of the story, and that is hopeful! You guess that she has used exaggeration in her writing of the novel that figures predominantly in what you've read so far--embellish might be what many Creative Writing professors in college have instructed you to do (as the narrator points out). But why should you have to understand the meaning of this particular passage and what it means to the novel, or what you've read so far? Or the message in any book for that matter? If the writer wants to remain obtuse? The narrator asks this question herself in the novel. Gets you thinking. But you desperately want to understand it.

 

The man, the former professor and great friend of hers after 30 years or so, has, or is supposed to have, committed suicide. In this passage (you might almost overlook it as you read it), this man who is her "greatest friend", appears alive and well after surviving a suicide attempt. He doesn't seem like the man she has described so far--in fact he doesn't like that she has written about him at all. And his dog is a dachshund rather than a Great Dane. She talks about the unrealistic color of the daffodils that she has brought the man, which are reflecting back an odd neon light in the windowsill where he has placed them. She confesses to him that she had upgraded his dog to a Great Dane in her novel. He confesses to her that he was relieved his suicide attempt was just that. An attempt.

 

But then the protagonist returns to her novel, or her actual life [I would really welcome thoughts about this here], and her Harlequin Great Dane, and the ending is written beautifully and is ever so bittersweet. I imagine "the friend" ends up being the sweet supportive Apollo, and not the man.

 

The protagonist in the novel is also a professor who speaks at great length about the differences between her students' treatment of, and their opinions about, the profession of teaching and writing, compared to when she was in college--the male professor who seduced a student in the 1970s or 80s and got away with it, would most likely lose his university job now. The same man who called his students "dear" would receive a group email from the women students asking him not to call them dear. The protagonist takes sexual harassment classes on line. In addition, she makes an interesting observation that for all the electronics in the life of her students, none of them puts a cell phone into their story. She writes about how writing takes away from the memory of actually living in it when writing memoirs or putting actual experiences into your fiction--something Anthony Bourdain had also discussed in his novel Kitchen Confidential, which I recently reviewed.

 

The Friend includes wonderful discussions about great literary works of art that any English major could deliciously sink their teeth into, if you were so misdirected as to become an English major in this day and age b-t-w! :) I was an English major in the 1980s so I'm not criticizing, I am describing the book--rather a character's [the dead friend's] instruction to avoid writing for a living if you want to make money.

 

I loved this novel! I highly recommend it, especially for all those writers and readers out there who love dogs.

 

Like beauty, creative art is also in the eye of the beholder. As The Friend won the National Book award for fiction for 2018, the eyes of its beholders are only smiling.

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