Review: Sigrid Nunez on a Woman’s Best Friend(s)

Imagine you and your cat live comfortably in a Manhattan apartment that measures 500 square feet. Then imagine a close friend dies and leaves you his harlequin Great Dane to take care of. Add a minor detail—you have to hide the 180-pound dog because the lease on your rent-controlled, can’t-ever-leave apartment forbids dogs of any size. And did I mention that the Great Dane, Apollo, is aging, not in the best of health, and depressed by the death of his owner.

The narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s delightful novel, The Friend, is also pretty depressed, and like Apollo, can’t come to grips with the suicide of the dog’s owner, her longtime friend and mentor. The narrator and the friend, both writers and teachers, shared philosophies, writing careers, politics, and briefly a bed. Eventually a love of Apollo becomes another shared sentiment.

It soon becomes clear that the title of the book, which won the 2018 National Book Award. refers to both the mentor, who is only identified as “you,” and Apollo, who in some ways grows to be a replacement for you, including sharing a bed, although a little less comfortably. (The narrator is never named either, which draws that much more attention to the name, Apollo, whose many titles include the god of healing.)

This is a delightful and important book—the kind that combines humor with the intensity of issues like suicide, the #metoo movement and friendship and its opposite (backstabbing), with much of it told through the interactions of a solitary writer and her dog.

The format of the book is unusual—short sections sometimes no longer than a paragraph—that make the book feel a journal, but the style quickly grows on a reader and fits perfectly with the fact that the narrator is an author.

The hardest thing to understand is the narrator’s attraction to “you,” a womanizer who preyed on his adoring writing students. A reader comes to understand how strongly “you” felt about the narrator: he slept with her only once to get it out of the way because he really cared about her, unlike the other women in his life. And while she respected his writing and his intelligence and companionship, a reader is left wondering why she was so willing to overlook his faults.

Amidst all that seriousness are hilarious sections as the narrator and Apollo adjust to each other and develop what proves to be a strong bond. The comedy comes easily: When she walks Apollo, passersby suggest she ride him and make jokes about the pooping-scooping. She soon discovers that Apollo likes to be read to, which works well for any writer who knows the value of reading one’s work out loud.

And Nunez, an author I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of before, takes a rapier wit to the entire literary scene, from the awards that become too important to the silliness that goes on in writing schools. Mixed in are some serious thoughts on the purpose of a novel and how writing affects the writer. At the memorial service for “you,” the narrator notes that most of the people there came not to mourn, but to network, gossip, and criticize. “If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does,” the narrator says, “it appears that writing also takes some away.”

The #metoo movement also comes in for some examination, not all of it good. While “you” is clearly a product of an uglier time, the descriptions of his affairs with the young women in his classes suggest there’s plenty of blame on both sides (who’s taking advantage of whom, one can ask).

The overriding theme is, as the title suggests, what it means to be a friend. Our narrator has two, and by the end of the novel, a reader is genuinely left wondering which is the better of the two.

Mark Willen