Don’t be deceived by the brevity of Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, What Are You Going Through. Like its National Book Award-winning predecessor, The Friend, this exquisite portrait of female friendship, aging and loss packs more insight into its barely 200 pages than many serious novels twice that length.
The novel’s unnamed narrator is a writer whose middle-aged friend, dying of cancer (“fatal,” as she prefers to say instead of “terminal”), asks her to serve as a companion in the New England rental house where she plans to end her life with a “euthanasia drug”—even as she confesses that “you weren’t my first choice” for this challenging assignment. Over the course of the succeeding weeks, with a “new intimacy that made secrets and lies intolerable,” and that at various moments is touching, profound and even wryly humorous, the women bond over shared stories of their lives, old movies, music and fairy tales, in something the narrator’s ex-partner observes “does sound a little like a sitcom. Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia.”
Borrowing the opening line of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier—“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”—Nunez confronts the reality of death without succumbing to despair. Whether she’s summarizing the improbable plot of a serial killer potboiler or recounting a conversation between the narrator and a “once beautiful woman” at the gym, she’s an economical, graceful storyteller. She also touches lightly but provocatively on subjects like climate change, the #MeToo movement and the malign influence of Fox News on one elderly woman’s psyche, then eases her story along almost before we realize it.
Sooner than she would like, the narrator faces the reality that what she’s come to think of as a “fairy tale” will end, and that, paradoxically, “the saddest time that has also been one of the happiest times in my life will pass. And I’ll be alone.” It’s a good bet that most readers will share that same wistful feeling when they reach the novel’s final page.