Review: The Friend // Grief and a Great Dane

Review by Mary Kat

  • Rating: 😻😻😻😻 /5
  • Recommend for: Fans of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Grief and a Great Dane

Intro

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is a novel about grief, writing, and the companionship of a great dane. After a beloved friend commits suicide, our narrator is unmoored and lost without a clear understanding of the death, his motives, or her way forward. While still reeling from the loss, she is approached by the friend’s wife (third wife, as it happens). Her friend had recently adopted a Great Dane, which is as massive, slobbery, and unwieldy as you’d expect. The wife cannot house the Great Dane anymore, and she hoists the Great Dane on our narrator, who accepts out of a sense of duty for her friend. From here, the novel is a mentation on grief, both in the form of our narrator as well as her new dog.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Continue at your own risk.

Nunez spans a great deal through her slim novel, referencing many great works as well as many far too obscure for my knowledge. There are quotes interspersed throughout the novel, ranging from the philosophical and literary to the bizarre. The book also becomes quite meta at times, particularly in the last third. In fact, we are shown an alternative universe, one in which the author’s friend has survived. This chapter is an interesting commentary on the truth and fiction of autobiographically inspired fiction — is the novel the true version (and this meta-aside with the survival of her friend a fantasy)? On the other hand, is the novel a fiction, and the inspiration lies in the unsuccessful attempt of a friend? It’s an interesting point for discussion, and I tend to side on the latter, believing that this chapter is a knowing wink from a complex author.

All The Best

The novel has a rather niche perspective for writers, but there were many aspects that I quite enjoyed. In particular, I loved the depiction of the Great Dane in grief. I felt this loss deeply, connecting with the pure unadulterated depression of the animal. I remember when my father passed away, our family dog seemed to slow and slow, pulling his hair out along the way, until he also died two weeks later. There is a connection between owner and pet that is undeniable, even after death, and this partnership is drawn well in Nunez’s novel.

Not My Favorite

As I’ve alluded, the book reads as a work as written for specifically other writers. Most of the novel is spent on the experiences of reading, writing, and teaching writing. Very little is spent outside the circle of authors. Unfortunately, this limits accessibility, and sometimes errs on the side of pretension. I had difficulty fully connecting to the narrator, as her experience was clearly so singular and unlike my own.

Verdict

This novel recently won the 2018 National Book Award, and I think it is a good pick for anyone interested in an intellectual, thoughtful reflection on grief from the writer’s perspective.

What Next?

  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill would be a good follow-up pick for readers who enjoy The Friend. Dept. of Speculation is also quite literary and poetic, and it is written from the perspective of a writer as she muses on her marriage, career, and the works of many other writings. Her marriage hits some serious roadblocks (a new child and infidelity), and the writer’s struggle to process these reminds me of the emotional current in The Friend.
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is a heart-breaking memoir by a neurosurgeon who was in his last years of medical training and his first years of being a father when he learned he had terminal cancer. Published after his passing, it’s a painful read, but one with a powerful perspective on grief, loss, dreams unrealized, and our own mortality.

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