Book Review – What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

This is a book that is much bigger than its 210 pages; it’s full of thought-provoking and life-affirming tidbits as well as being wonderfully written.

Our narrator is visiting an old friend who has terminal cancer and whilst this is central to the plot, it is (in my opinion) not what the book is about. Through a series of encounters, we are encouraged to think about our own experiences and needs. Indeed, the whole book forces us to ask ourselves, what are YOU going through?

At first this story reads as a stream of consciousness of our narrator (who I’m not sure is ever named – apologies if I just missed this piece of information!) – she goes into great detail about the people she meets and interacts with through her daily life before getting to the crux of the story which is the terminally ill friend. On reflection, the form of the narrative early in the book seems to be a metaphor for processing the deeply distressing knowledge that her friend will soon die. 

As the story goes on, the narrative becomes somewhat more predictable and we begin to see the shape of the characters, most notably the friend who is trying to come to terms with her diagnosis and what this means for her. I found the relationship here between mother and daughter, fraught with bitterness and resentment, very poignant and moving. As a childless woman, something I often think about is what will happen to me when I am older and often romanticize the ideal that if I’d had children, they would care for me. Nunez does a great job here of showing us that this is not always the case, and familial relationships are rarely what you would have expected them to be.

Another element of this unique book that I particularly enjoyed was the sub-plot of the narrator’s ex who speaks publicly about environmental decline and humanity’s self-inflicted (and irrevocable) demise. 

An interesting read for the childless community due to the narrator’s lack of children, this is a story that prompts the reader to think deeply about their own encounters and experiences as well as wondering what comes next. 

The book does not focus on parenthood per se, although the terminally ill friend does have a grown-up daughter with whom she has a difficult relationship.

The narrator is childless but her ex went on to have children and grandchildren who are referenced in the book. 

 

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