“The Friend” is a novel about writing, friendship, loss and man’s (in this case woman’s) relationship to animals, most particularly dogs. Although short (214 pages), The Friend packs a punch in the way it touches on life’s many wonders.
The novel is in part a musing on writing. In this part of the novel, the narrator is a writer and teaches writing in a university in New York. Her closest friend was a successful novelist and also a professor of writing. A great deal of the book is devoted to questions about the writer’s role in society and the changing perceptions of writers in culture. The narrator spends a great deal of time discussing other writers and approaches to the themes of the book (the other musings that come next). Many of my favorite authors are quoted or discussed.
The novel is in part a musing about suicide and grief. The narrator’s friend has just died and the death is a suicide. This disclosure is not a spoiler since the cause of death is made clear at the beginning. The narrator spends time reading about suicide, thinking about writings about suicide and mentioning other authors who have committed suicide. She wonders what would have happened if her friend had failed.
Finally, the novel is a musing about our relationship to dogs. The narrator’s friend had a dog, a Great Dane named Apollo. Apollo weighs 180 pounds and stands 34 inches, shoulder to paw. The friend’s wife, known in the novel as wife Number 3, cannot take care of the dog and asks the narrator to take the dog. The narrator lives in a 500 square foot apartment in Manhattan that does not allow dogs. She takes Apollo and all three parts of the novel, writing, grief and dogs come together.
The landlord threatens to evict her, but the narrator comes up with an ingenious solution—you need to read the novel to discover the solution. She falls madly in love with Apollo and he became a most important part of her life and also gives her a lasting connection to her friend. When pondering the relationship of humans and dogs she asks a lot of questions and makes a number of points that most dog lovers have likely considered. For instance, after we are introduced to the lovely Apollo, Nunez taunts the reader with “Does something bad happen to the dog?” That seems to me the question I ask in every book, every television show and every movie I see where a dog plays a role.
Nunez also asks “Why do people often find animal suffering harder to accept than the suffering of other human beings?” Reflecting on the outrage we feel over cruelty to animals, Nunez answers the question by reflecting on our own instincts in early life when we are helpless and observes that “when we are no longer capable of feeling it [outrage] will be a terrible day for every living being, that our own downward slide into violence and barbarity will be only that much quicker.”
Nunez ties all three musings together at the end of the book by acknowledging the significant role that love and loss play in shaping who we are. “What we miss—what we love and what we mourn—isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.”
I loved this book! The author uses a number of literary tricks which work, her life observations are real and poignant, without being preachy, her writing is fantastic and then of course there are the dogs. I acknowledge that this book may not be for everyone. But if you love to read literary fiction, this is a book for you. Oh, and one more thing, the novel won the 2018 National Book Award for fiction. The Friend can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.