It’s been quite a while since I quickly devoured a book in my downtime (I don’t read at work anymore sadly) as the last one I loved was Luster by Raven Leilani, which I read at the end of August. However, defying my no-read orders, I recently read Sigrid Nuñez’s The Friend and it has become one of my newest favorite books ever. I didn’t expect to love The Friend—even though Megan gave it to me and I eventually adore all of her recommendations and shared novels—because the premise is about a woman who comes to care for her best friend/mentor’s dog after he unexpectedly commits suicide. The whole of the book obviously focuses on the woman and her slowly blooming love for Apollo, the dog, but it’s mainly about grief and writing and how we remember the ones we love.
The Friend often feels like a stream of consciousness or insight into the protagonist’s journal because the paragraphs are separated into sometimes unrelated thoughts or settings. The book opens with the woman learning about her friend’s death and how she manages to pick herself up without obviously grieving. The man who died (he and the protagonist are both unnamed as well as his three previous wives who make appearances throughout the novel) was the woman’s TA at one point and they struck up a friendship/almost relationship shortly after. I loved the beginning because Nuñez perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to suddenly lose someone one loves and the difficulty of navigating that loss when that person did not belong to them. Although they slept together only once, the protagonist and the man were not in love (or so she says), but her sporadic emotions tell the reader otherwise. After Wife 3 begs the woman to take care of the man’s dog he recently found, the novel becomes more about how she takes comfort in the words of favorite authors while she learns to care for Apollo. The man is featured less and less as she goes through many therapy sessions until the penultimate chapter where she imagines an encounter where he didn’t kill himself.
Some of my favorite moments in The Friend are in the beginning as she talks about her grief and how their relationship was unwavering even if Wife Two despised her (a familiar feeling). However, even though I expected to be bored of the story after the protagonist slowly talks more about Apollo and life without the man, I was even more attached to those parts. I loved how easily she wrote about her feelings of inadequacy when it came to her writing when she said, “And could I justify doing something with my life, my one wild and precious life, that I knew, undone, would not be missed?” (73). When I’m writing poems or even blogging here, I often think that I’ll never match up to any other writer so why even bother, and it was comforting to read that same feeling in another woman’s words. I also loved the sections where she wonders whether it would be better to cement the man’s memory in her work or never write about him again as she takes advice from different authors. Between remembered moments, the protagonist says, “You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing, warns Natalia Ginzburg. Turn then to Izak Dinesen, who believed that you could make any sorrow bearable by putting it into a story or telling a story about it,” (Nuñez 57). Throughout the entire novel, the protagonist examines her life and what it’s like to be alone. Although she loved the man, she talks about why she would rather be alone (with Apollo) than put her faith in a relationship. At one point, she writes, “A love so potent it might have been the effect of a spell. One of those grand passions given only to some to experience, the rest to hear tell and dream about. Even now it has the force of legend for me: beautiful, terrible, doomed,” (114). I love these lines because I feel exactly the same way as the woman even if my emotions might show otherwise.
Of course, most of the book is about Apollo and how he and the woman heal each other of their grief for the man. Although she doesn’t want to take him from Wife 3 initially, she and the large puppy eventually become tied at the hip. I found it funny that once she and Apollo go all in on their connection, people start to worry about her and her complete investment in a dog. As if those people never had pets of their own. That part of the novel illustrated how important it is to invest love in other people or animals, and not just in romantic love. Toward the end, she writes, “What are we, Apollo and I, if not two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other?” (146). The way Apollo shared in her sadness and then repaired her heart is like that of many other stories featuring beloved pets. The Friend expertly navigates heartache and pain and joy that can be found despite the two. I loved the book so much and I hope that if you read it, you’ll find the same emotions as well.