The publishing world’s Year of the Dog celebration starts off auspiciously with the release of two stellar works that explore the life-changing effect dogs can have on us.
Novelist Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend (Riverhead Books) is a poignant story of loss and grief as well as a meditation on the redemptive relationship between a woman and the Great Dane she inherits. Poet Stephen Kuusisto’s memoir, Have Dog, Will Travel (Simon & Schuster), is, true to its title, a joyous trip into the intensity of the partnership between a blind man and his guide dog.
The Friend is told from the viewpoint of an unnamed female narrator, a writer and teacher who’s floundering after her best friend and mentor, a much-admired literary figure, commits suicide. Contemplative and darkly funny, she examines the meaning of their friendship and questions the point of being a writer après le déluge of profound loss. In recalled and imagined conversations, she probes the reasons for his death, often relying on examples from literature (great quotes abound).
In the midst of this introspection, she gets a call from her mentor’s “Wife Three,” who informs her that he has bequeathed her his dog, a Harlequin Great Dane named Apollo. And though she lives in a small, pet-unfriendly NYC apartment, she accepts the bequest. At that point, the story’s focus shifts slightly from the man who was her best friend to the dog who becomes her best friend.
Both dog and woman have a deep sorrow to overcome, and both seem to be waiting for their deceased friend to reappear. Drawing upon literature as life’s lesson plan, she is attracted to stories such as J.R. Ackerley’s classic My Dog Tulip, about the obsessive, intense relationship between Ackerley and his female German Shepherd. We see the narrator’s relationship with Apollo take on the same qualities. At long last, she finds solace and a reason to love again.
In less skilled hands, a narrative with death and grieving as its through-line could have maudlin overtones, but Nunez completely avoids that trap, which makes the book all the more remarkable. A masterful celebration of our relationship with dogs, The Friend is also an unforgettable, uniquely told story about that relationship’s redemptive and healing powers. This is an elegant, erudite and fully charming, life-affirming book, and I urge everyone to read it. (See our interview with Nunez.)