THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez

From the Jacket

When a woman unexpectedly loses her lifelong best friend and literary mentor, she finds herself burdened with the unwanted dog he has left behind.  Her own battle against grief is intensified by the mute suffering of the dog, a huge Great Dane traumatized by the inexplicable disappearance of its master, and by the threat of eviction: dogs are prohibited in her Manhattan apartment building.

While others worry that grief has made her a victim of magical thinking, the woman refuses to be separated from the dog except for brief periods of time.  Isolated from the rest of the world, increasingly obsessed with the animal’s care, determined to read its mind and fathom its heart, she comes dangerously close to unraveling.  But while troubles abound, rich and surprising rewards lie in store for both of them.

My Thoughts

“Something bad happens to the dog: a lesson learned early, from childhood books.  The animals in those stories often die, often in bad ways.  Old Yeller.  The red pony.  And even when they don’t die, even when they’re not just alive but happy at the end, they suffer, often badly, often they are put through hell.  Black Beauty.  Flicka.  White Fang.  Buck  .  .  .  No doubt like many other readers, I remember crying over these books, yet never regretting having read them.  Is there anything more compelling than a story about a child and an animal who bond?”

Whenever I’ve seen THE FRIEND around online in the past few months, especially around National Book Award season, I always considered it to be The Dog Book.  It’s for that reason that I was afraid to pick it up for the longest time.  Like Nunez describes above, we’ve been trained to believe something bad will happen to the dog in novels like these, stories of canine companionship.  But THE FRIEND is not just another Dog Book- it’s a thought-provoking reflection on grief and loss, following a main character mourning the sudden loss of her friend, who comes to care for his grieving dog despite the threat of eviction from her New York apartment.

“I remember once, when I had to go out of town, I left my cat with a boyfriend.  He was no cat lover, but later he told me how much he’d liked having her because, he said, I missed you, and having her was like having a part of you here.  Having your dog is like having a part of you here.”

The beginning of THE FRIEND was difficult to put down, as the narrator comes to care for the dog and recalls fond memories of her late friend.  I fell in love with Nunez’s writing style; THE FRIEND is written in short and sweet vignettes with a hint of stream-of-consciousness, so it’s almost like the reader is stuck inside the narrator’s thought process (I dig novels like that).  However, around the halfway point, the novel, specifically the lackluster plot, came to feel dry and repetitive, and I found myself skimming the last fifty or so pages (which is a lot for such a slim book!).

As the proud “sister” to an Australian shepherd, the so-called “Velcro dog” for their tendency to be intensely attached to their master, I was nervous that Nunez’s novel would be too difficult to digest, like another Marley & Me.  Though I didn’t love THE FRIEND, I’m happy to appreciate it for what it is: a novel in which nothing bad happens to the dog!


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