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Sigrid Nunez’ latest novel is a meditation on grief and the deep emotional bonds we forge with our pets. The Friend is the story of a middle-aged writer who has lost her best friend, mentor, and former lover to suicide. Following his death, she inherits his 180-pound Great Dane, Apollo, which poses immediate problems: the narrator lives in a 500-square-foot apartment in a building that has a strict no-pets policy.

In The Friend (Riverhead Books, 2018), Apollo is at times a smelly, drooling houseguest, but he also loves to be read to (he’s partial to Rilke and Knausgaard). And as the novel unfolds, dog and narrator bring comfort to each other. At one point, the narrator notes, dogs “don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken.” Later, when Apollo’s own health begins to fail, the novel takes on a deeply elegiac tone. 

On November 14, 2018, the novel won a top literary prize: the National Book Award for best fiction.

“I see it as a book about different kinds of loss,” says Nunez, a College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in the Creative Writing Program. “There’s the loss a person suffers when someone they love dies, the losses that we all have to face as we grow older, and the lost illusions that most people encounter as they go through life. But the book is also about healing from loss.”

It’s also a trenchant take on today’s literary scene. Her keenly observed depictions of writing workshops are laced with a sly wit.

Nunez had long wanted to write a novel about suicide and suicide loss, and also about her work as a writer and writing teacher, and about literary mentorship. At the same time, she wanted to explore human-animal companionships. (She acknowledges being more of a cat person herself.) “I saw a way to explore all these subjects in one novel,” she says.

The author of seven novels, Nunez has earned a reputation for versatility. She has written about ballet (A Feather on the Breath of God) and about a deadly plague (Salvation City), and a fictionalized account of the marmoset adopted by Virginia Woolf’s husband, Leonard (Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury). She’s also written a well-received memoir of her own mentor, Susan Sontag, Sempre Susan. But The Friend has brought her a new level of attention, with critics uniformly extolling the book. Kirkus Reviews describes it as “quietly brilliant and darkly funny,” and says that it’s “a lonely novel: rigorous and stark, so elegant—so dismissive of conventional notions of plot—it hardly feels like fiction.” And from the Los Angeles Review of Books: “one of those rare novels that, in the end, makes your heart beat slower.”

Judges for the 2018 National Book Awards concurred. Nunez was one of 25 finalists selected from 1,637 books submitted for consideration, 368 of them works of fiction. Also nominated in the category of best fiction were James Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, Lauren Groff’s Florida, Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking, and Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers.

Nunez, who is at work on a new novel, says she’s been surprised to hear from the many readers who have written to say how moved they’ve been by the book. “A lot of them are fiercely attached to their animal companions, especially dogs,” she says. “I’ve heard quite a few sad stories from people about losing their pets to illness and old age.”