Books abouthuman-dog companionship tend to follow a mawkish formula: A devoted, self-sacrificing or endearingly chaotic pooch somehow manages to teach a callow, selfish or overly regimented person something about love. Contributions to this airport-friendly genre usually deserve an eye roll and a weary sigh—unless, that is, the author is Sigrid Nunez.
“The Friend,” Ms. Nunez’s seventh novel, is a beautiful book. Its narrator is an unnamed, unmarried woman whose closest friend, a fellow writer in his 60s, has committed suicide, leaving her to look after the massive, gloomy Great Dane he has left behind. This hulking animal makes for an unwieldy addition to the woman’s tiny, rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment, from which dogs are banned. In a city of crowded sidewalks, his size attracts gawkers (“Have you tried riding him?” they ask with a chuckle). Taking him in seems short-sighted. But like any act of love rashly undertaken in grief, it is also therapeutic. “Having your dog is like having a part of you here,” observes the narrator in what reads like a lengthy letter to her late friend.
True to dog-book conventions, the woman, a writer who has long lived alone and “never really become a part of life,” falls in love with the dog. He turns out to be an attentive listener, and his “huge warm body” becomes a stabilizing source of comfort in bed.
But “The Friend” is more subtle than this might suggest. The book hovers in the meditative and often amusing realm of its narrator’s thoughts, which touch on everything from moral justifications for suicide to the unreliable rewards of the writing life. Like Ms. Nunez herself, the narrator makes a living by teaching writing to others, and the book is littered with her wry takes on her students, all of whom expect to become famous. Like a bird gathering twigs and treasures to build out her nest, the narrator draws on Seneca, Wittgenstein, Flannery O’Connor and others for the wisdom to carry on: “If writing wasn’t painful, O’Connor says, it would not be worth doing.”
It is surprising how few readers know about Ms. Nunez, whose clean, spare sentences often ring like bells. “The Friend,” one hopes, will change this. Cleverly packaged as yet another book about the ennobling affection of a dog, this slim volume is crammed with a world of insight into death, grief, art and love.