The Friend (Nunez)

The Friend 
Sigrid Nunez, 2018
Penguin Publishing
224 pp.

WINNER, 2018 National Book Awards-Fiction

A moving story of love, friendship, grief, healing, and the magical bond between a woman and her dog

When a woman unexpectedly loses her lifelong best friend and 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 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 dog'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.

Elegiac and searching, The Friend is both a meditation on loss and a celebration of human-canine devotion. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1950 ?
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education—M.A., Barnard College; M.F.A., Columbia University
Awards—Whiting Award, Rome Prize, Berlin Prize
Currently—lives in New York, New York

Author Sigrid Nunez, daughter of a German mother and a Chinese-Panamanian father, was born and raised in New York City. She received her BA from Barnard College and her MFA from Columbia University.

After finishing school she worked for a time as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books. She has taught at Princeton University, Amherst College, Smith College, Columbia University and the New School, and has been a visiting writer at Baruch College, Washington University, Vassar College and the University of California, Irvine, among others. She has also been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and of several other writers' conferences across the United States. She lives in New York City.

Nunez is the author of seven novels: A Feather on the Breath of God (1995), Naked Sleeper (1996), Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury (1998), For Rouenna (2001), The Last of Her Kind (2006), Salvation City (2010), and The Friend (2018). Her major concerns as a novelist have been language, memory, identity, class, and writing itself.

In addition to fiction, Nunez is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (2011).

Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including four Pushcart Prize volumes and four volumes of Asian American literature. Among the journals she has contributed to are the New York Times, Paris Review, Harper's, McSweeney's, Believer, Threepenny Review, Tin House, and O: The Oprah Magazine.

She was a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in spring, 2005. Among her other honors are a Whiting Award and two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters: the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award and the Rome Prize in Literature. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 3/6/2018 .)

Book Reviews
[D]ry, allusive and charming.… This novel's tone in general …is mournful and resonant. It sheds rosin, like the bow of a cello.… The Friend is thick with quotations and anecdotes from the lives and work of many writers, in a way that can recall the bird's-nest-made-of-citations novels of David Markson. Nunez deals these out deftly; they do not jam her flow. The snap of her sentences sometimes put me in mind of Rachel Cusk.
Dwight Garner - New York Times

The contemplation of writing and the loss of integrity in our literary life form the heart of the novel.… Nunez’s prose itself comforts us. Her confident and direct style uplifts—the music in her sentences, her deep and varied intelligence. She addresses important ideas unpretentiously and offers wisdom for any aspiring writer who, as the narrator fears, may never know this dear, intelligent friend—or this world that is dying. But is it dying? Perhaps. But with The Friend, Nunez provides evidence that, for now, it survives.
New York Times Book Review

With enormous heart and eloquence, Nunez explores cerebral responses to loss.… The Friend exposes an extraordinary reserve of strength waiting to be found in storytelling and unexpected companionship.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The book is an intimate, beautiful thing, deceptively slight at around 200 pages, but humming with insight… [an] artfully discursive meditation on friendship, love, death, solitude, canine companionship and the life of an aging writer in New York. Far from being heavy going, this novel, written as a letter to the late friend, is peppered with wry observations, particularly those of a writer stuck teaching undergraduates.
Economist (UK)

A penetrating, moving meditation on loss, comfort, memory, what it means to be a writer today, and various forms of love and friendship... Nunez has a wry, withering wit.

In this slim but pitch-perfect novel, a writer loses her best friend and mentor suddenly without explanation…Wry and moving, The Friend is a love story, a mania story, and a recovery story.
Vanity Fair

A poignant reflection on loss and companionship.
Marie Claire

[A] sneaky gut punch of a novel …a consummate example of the human-animal tale.… The Friend’s tone is dry, clear, direct—which is the surest way to carry off this sort of close-up study of anguish and attachment.

A wry riff on Rilke’s idea of love as two solitudes that "protect and border and greet each other."

Often as funny as it is thoughtful, The Friend is an elegant meditation on grief, friendship, healing, and the bonds between humans and dogs.

[O]ver the course of the rest of the novel, her love for Apollo both consumes and heals [the narrator]. This elegant novel explores both rich memories and … the way … the past is often more vibrant than the present.
Publishers Weekly

This is very much a writer's novel[,] … a slow, poignant meditation on grief, rife with pithy literary myths and quotations. Verdict: Literature nerds, creative writing students, and dog lovers will find this work delightful. —Kate Gray, Boston P.L., MA
Library Journal

Nunez offers an often-hilarious, always-penetrating look at writing, grief, and the companionship of dogs.

(Starred review.) Quietly brilliant and darkly funny, Nunez's latest novel finds her on familiar turf with an aggressively unsentimental interrogation of grief, writing, and the human-canine bond.… It is a lonely novel: rigorous and stark, so elegant.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start discussion for THE FRIEND … then take off on your own:

1. How is the narrator's love for her friend different from that of a wife, of which he'd had three? For years till his death, even after early affair as student/teacher, the narrator considered him her dearest friend. Why?

2. Talk about the ways in which Apollo provides comfort to the narrator. Consider, for instance, how she describes the fact that "having a huge warm body pressed along the length of your spine is an amazing comfort." What experience with dogs (and cats) have you had in terms of their uncanny ability to recognize our moods and, consciously or not, offer solace?

3. Follow-up to Question 2: How does the narrator comfort Apollo (above and beyond providing food and shelter)?

4. What do you think of the friend, a womanizer who slept with his students, including herself? Were his actions ethical, especially if there is equal attraction? He once said, that "the classroom was the most erotic place in the world. To deny this was puerile." Does he have a point? Why do students fall for teachers? What's the dynamic?

5. Thinking of J.M. Coetzee's character in Disgrace, the narrator wonders about castration as a "fix" for her friend who, with such frequency, engaged in "disgusting...antics of a dirty old man." Any thoughts?

6. Why do her own students disappoint the narrator? What are the views some espouse in their papers?

7. "If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing takes some away." Why does the narrator feel this way about her fellow writers?

8. There is little in The Friend when it comes to drama; it's primarily a study of character and an exploration of ideas. Would more action have made a difference to you in terms of how you experienced the book? Nunez also includes a large number of quotations and stories from the works of writers. Are they well integrated into the novel? Did you enjoy them … or find them distracting?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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