A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own.
Jody and Reina share their thoughts on What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez’s moving story about the meaning of life and death, and the value of companionship.
Jody says: Sigrid Nunez’ work may be a little difficult to read for most as the plot is not the driving force behind the novel. […] You do get used to this newer structure (or lack of structure?) as you read on, and the story begins to kick in a bit more as you accompany the narrator on her visits to her friend in the hospital.
Reina says: I’m absolutely certain some people will pick up this book because of its essay-style exploration of existential themes. But I also feel very strongly that the style is exactly what’s polarising about it: for me specifically, what made the book immensely difficult to get through was the style. Specifically, the fact that there is a glaring lack of quotation marks around the majority of spoken text.
Jody says: While plot might not be driving you forward, you are introduced to a whole chorus of people whose lives will keep you turning page after page. […] Each of these people with their own stories made their way into the larger life of the narrator in a messy hodgepodge, which I guess is not unlike what our own lives look like—a haphazard collage of overlapping experiences and people.
Reina says: There are whole chapters about conversations with a cat, a serial killer murder mystery novel the narrator is reading, and stories about her elderly neighbor and gym buddy. And I appreciate how these little tangents illustrate the importance of asking what other people are going through, but the digressing combined with the difficult style made it so hard for me to hold on to the thread of the story.
Jody says: This is not a book for escapists. This isn’t a book you read if you want to be transported to a completely different world and a completely different life. While it is a book that shows you the lives of very many people in all the shades of emotion and hues of happiness and suffering that color their days, it is a book that makes you look at your own life too—what are you going through? This is a book for those willing to take a look at the lives they live and the lives that surround them.
Reina says: I would definitely care more about the narrator and this dying friend of hers if they were characters in a novel that was clearly escapism. What is it about the realness of their story and the un-sugarcoated way it's being told that makes me reflexively numb myself? […] If this year has awakened you to questions about life, death, climate change, and what it means to connect with other human beings—and if walls of text don’t deter you—then What Are You Going Through might be a book for you.