When The Friend of a woman commits suicide, he leaves his great dane to her.
She knows nothing of raising a dog and lives in a tiny apartment. But together, they speak the universal language of grief and find comfort in one another.
The lead-up is compelling as she remembers her history with her friend and tries to make sense out of why he did what he did. It’s interesting to see this unlikely pair woman and dog, and their forced cohabitation.
But then, the story diverts as the narrator ruminates about several unrelated facts. In addition to the story, we also get a lot of fun facts, including:
- Man’s dominion over animals
- Writing as catharsis
- The movie Lillya Forever
- Marital therapy
- A book about some rando dog’s sex life that I truly could have done without
The story has a lot of branches that don’t really have anything to do with the tree. Imagine willow tree fronds hanging from an oak. They don’t belong together.
Sometimes that’s okay. Diversions will still give us clues about the character or move the plot forward. But I’m not convinced that happens here.
If we were to draw subtext from these stream-of-consciousness facts, it would be that our main character is intelligent but scattered, with facts bouncing around her head like the be-boppiest of frenetic jazz notes.
I don’t think that’s the case here. It doesn’t seem true to the character. Instead of developing her character, the info takes away from the story.
Another possibility: maybe these thoughtful diversions show her processing her grief in an unconventional way. Since she’s an academically-inclined person, perhaps she must think of everything in terms of facts and studies, living inside herself.
In an imagined conversation, we see these academic flights of fancy make up the bulk of her interactions with the friend. Sharing info is their love language and running through facts is her way of honoring her friend in her mind.
But WOW, are there a lot of random facts.
So, for the actual review portion of this book review: did I like The Friend? I’m not sure. Some of our narrator’s diversions were quite interesting. I love trivia, and this seems to have armed me for many a round of Trivial Pursuit.
But I’m not convinced that these diversions moved the story forward. Take out the factual meandering and this could have been easily condensed to a fantastic short story. We could have seen her move through grief just as effectively without long rumination on unfaithful swans.
By Sigrid Nunez
Published February 2018
Watch this review of The Friend and other booktube videos on my Read Remark YouTube channel.