Summary and book reviews of What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

What Are You Going Through

by Sigrid Nunez

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez X
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
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  • Published:
    Sep 2020, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book

Book Summary

The New York Times-bestselling, National Book Award-winning author of The Friend brings her singular voice to a story about the meaning of life and death, and the value of companionship.

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.

In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.

Excerpt
What Are You Going Through

I went to hear a man give a talk. The event was held on a college campus. The man was a professor, but he taught at a different school, in another part of the country. He was a well-known author, who, earlier that year, had won an international prize. But although the event was free and open to the public, the auditorium was only half full. I myself would not have been in the audience, I would not even have been in that town, had it not been for a coincidence. A friend of mine was being treated in a local hospital that specializes in treating her particular type of cancer. I had come to visit this friend, this very dear old friend whom I had not seen in several years, and whom, given the gravity of her illness, I might not see again.

It was the third week of September, 2017. I had booked a room through Airbnb. The host was a retired librarian, a widow. From her profile I knew that she was also the mother of four, the grandmother of six, and that her ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In What Are You Going Through, a writer grapples with the impending death of a close college friend, as well as with the anxieties, disappointments, and isolation of the ordinary people that she encounters, each with a story to tell. What do you think the characters gain by telling their stories to the narrator? What does the narrator gain in return?
  2. The novel asks the reader to consider the question of how one should live, and presents very different viewpoints. Compare and contrast the attitudes of the various characters, including the narrator's journalist ex-boyfriend, the narrator's dying friend, the son of her elderly neighbor, and the woman from the gym. What are your personal views on the subject?
  3. None of the characters in the novel ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The book's most touching and striking element is its depiction of the intensity produced in situations where time is precious. While there is nothing new in connecting love with death, Nunez's writing succeeds in capturing the strange, startling illumination both can bring. It also draws attention to how people sometimes diminish profound life experiences by corralling them into narrow ideas of beauty and romance. What Are You Going Through suggests that this diminishment may be overcome by a genuine curiosity about and interest in other human beings...continued

Full Review (711 words).

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(Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook).

Media Reviews

New York Times
[What Are You Going Through is] as good as The Friend, if not better...Not everything clicks...The novel drifts at a few moments...But you can say about this wise novel what the narrator says about Make Way for Tomorrow, the Depression-era movie she watches with her dying friend: 'No matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.'

Washington Post
One’s moved by the scope and pith of this novel’s ambition, as it addresses our biggest questions by naming the particular…But most striking may be how Nunez’s narrator transfigures, through deepening compassion, from a wry, circumspect observer into someone raked raw with hapless love for her vanishing friend…It’s the here-and-now of What Are You Going Through that spears us, its chorale-like testimonies, their preemptive requiem.

NPR
Sigrid Nunez is on a roll. She's tapped into a smart, wry voice which feels right for our times, as do her concerns with friendship, empathy, loss, and loneliness...The marvel of this novel is that it encompasses so much sadness yet is not grim...Nunez has written another deeply humane reminder of the great solace of both companionship and literature.

Publishers Weekly
[F]ierce...Much of the novel's action is internal, as the attention of its judgmental, withholding narrator flicks from books to movies to sharp-edged thoughts about the people she encounters, offering plenty of surprises. Those willing to jump along with her should be tantalized by the provocative questions she raises.

LitHub
Sigrid Nunez orchestrates a beautiful chorus of humanness here, and the novel asks a question we might all be thinking in these distant times: What does it mean to really be there for someone in times of hardship?

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[S]hort, sharp, and quietly brutal...The novel is concerned with the biggest possible questions and confronts them so bluntly it is sometimes jarring: How should we live in the face of so much suffering? Dryly funny and deeply tender; draining and worth it.

Booklist (starred review)
Richly interiorized...With both compassion and joy, Nunez contemplates how we survive life's certain suffering, and don't, with words and one another.

Library Journal (starred review)
Deeply empathetic without being sentimental, this novel explores women's lives, their choices, and how they support one another, particularly when they don't have spouses or children or those relationships have become strained. Highly recommended for readers who favor emotional resonance over escapism during difficult times.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Simone Weil (1909-1943)

Black and white photo of Simone WeilWhat Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez takes its title from the writing of Simone Weil, an influential French philosopher and intellectual whose work was unusual for incorporating both left-leaning politics and religious traditions.

Weil was born in Paris on February 3, 1909 to agnostic Jewish parents. Her family was well-off and educated; her father practiced medicine and her older brother, Andre, would become a famous mathematician. At a young age, she began to adopt strong moral convictions; when she was five, she refused to consume sugar as a way of showing solidarity with the French troops fighting on the Western Front. She attended Lycée Henry-IV (a highly selective French secondary school), where she was taught by the ...

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