The Vulnerables

by Sigrid Nunez

Riverhead Books, 2023

reviewed by Seana Graham

Only when I was young did I believe that it was important to remember what happened in every novel I read. Now I know the truth: what matters is what you experience while reading, the states of feeling that the story evokes, the questions that rise to your mind, rather than the fictional events described. They should teach you this in school, but they don’t. Always instead the emphasis is on what you remembered. Otherwise, how could you write a critique? How could you pass an exam? How could you ever get a degree in literature?

…I like the novelist who confessed that the only thing to have stayed with him after reading Anna Karenina was the detail of a picnic basket holding a jar of honey.

Reading this passage from the opening of The Vulnerables took a great weight off my shoulders that I didn’t even know I was carrying. Of course it’s all about the primal interaction between the text and the reader! Why hadn’t I seen that before?

And yet, there is a contradiction here, which only grows the farther you get into Nunez’s novel. Because in this very excerpt she mentions another author whose words she is lucky enough to have recalled and which have come in handy here. And this is far from the only time her memory of authors’ writing comes up in the story, even if she sometimes has to look them up to quote them. As I did just now.

The unnamed narrator finds herself on her own in New York City when the lockdown phase of the Covid pandemic strikes. She roams the largely deserted streets, trying to find her writing mojo again, as well as just trying to deal with the altered state of the world in general. She is asked by a friend who is stranded on the other side of the country if she will go look in on this friend’s parrot, Eureka, who has been left behind. The young man who was supposed to be caring for him has bailed, and parrots are social creatures who need companionship.

There are some similarities in style to her National Book Award winning novel The Friend, which also speaks of taking care of a friend’s pet, also in dire (though different) circumstances. There was some discussion in the small group I was discussing this with about whether The Vulnerables is a novel at all, and one reaction was “who cares?”. But in The Friend, Nunez let us in on her process, revealing that yes, she did have a friend who was talking of killing himself and she took care of his dog, but he didn’t end up doing that (unlike her character, who is dead by the novel’s open) and the dog was a dachshund, not a Great Dane. In other words, she got a prompt from real life…and turned it into fiction.

The reason to read Nunez is not to try and guess how much of it actually happened but to feast on her reflections and observations about life as she goes along. You will not have guessed from my telling you that this book is about a woman agreeing to pet sit a parrot that the protagonist will wander off into a description of being cruel as a young girl to a boy who had fallen in love with her, or that at some point the story will take a critical look at Joan Didion’s famous reporting on Haight Ashbury in Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

And you would probably not be ready (except I’m telling you) for the fact that the irresponsible and apparently dreadful boy who abandoned the parrot turns out to have had different motivations for practically everything the narrator originally finds fault with. Or was led to find fault with.

There seems to be some consensus among people I know that this book isn’t quite as good as The Friend, or maybe just isn’t quite as structured. And perhaps this is true. But to me, anyway, Nunez’s  work is really all of a piece, reflective and thoughtful, and I will eagerly ontinue to read any of it that I find.

Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. She has published stories in a variety of literary journals. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation  from Storgy Press, includes one of them. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides. 


Get The Vulnerables at Riverhead Books

An interview with Sigrid Nunez at the Chicago Review of Books on The Vulnerables

Sigrid Nunez talks about The Vulnerables on YouTube


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