What Are You Going Through: A Novel

by Sigrid Nunez

Hardcover, 2020




Riverhead Books (2020), Edition: 1st Edition, 224 pages


"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"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member icolford
What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez’s follow-up to her National Book Award winning novel The Friend, describes the emotionally fraught journey of an unnamed middle-aged female narrator (a writer and intellectual) through a minefield of human relationships. The narrator seems to attract
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people who crave an audience, who need (with, it seems, biological urgency) to tell their stories, and these become the narrator’s story. Central to the novel is the narrator’s friend who has cancer. The narrator is in town to visit her friend, in hospital receiving treatment. On the first evening of her visit, after spending the afternoon in the hospital, she attends a lecture given by a man—her ex, though, coyly, she does not immediately disclose this detail—pertaining to climate change and the state of the environment. His message is grim: that the damage inflicted by humanity is irredeemable and irreversible, and, since there is no hope, humanity’s only responsible choice is to alter its current behaviour in ways that will mitigate the pain and suffering of future generations. In subsequent chapters we learn that the friend’s treatments succeed, that her survival seems likely. But later the cancer returns, and she is given a terminal diagnosis. Once again, the narrator visits, and this is when the friend makes a stunning request: will the narrator help her to die? The narrator’s account includes descriptions of encounters with other people who are facing life-changing decisions and various difficulties related to aging and infirmity—in particular, an elderly woman in her building, a distrustful chronic complainer who refuses to make concessions to physical decline. It would be reasonable to imagine a novel built around notions of death and dying would be gloomy, but What Are You Going Through is the product of a writer whose ironic outlook permeates a lively, fast-moving narrative that focuses broadly on the modern human condition. Much of the discourse in the novel is refreshingly blunt—Nunez’s characters say what they mean. After all, when you’re dying, who has time to prevaricate? With death and dying as its focus, What Are You Going Through raises profound questions about life and living and does so in an entertaining manner. This is fiction with a huge heart. Nothing short of a triumph.
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LibraryThing member deeEhmm
An example of a book to which I can't assign stars, though it moved me deeply. So honest a portrayal of humans as they are drawn relentlessly through time toward an end. I'm going to go back and read it again. I will say that reading Sigrid Nunez's fiction can often be more like reading narrative
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poetry than like reading "a story." Her version of a story is much more of an exploration of character and world than the usual plot-driven fiction.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
What a beautiful writer she is. I loved The Friend, and just loved this as well. Her writing is so calming, despite the subject! Reminds me of Rachel Cusk - the detached yet so observant narrator.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
I just love this author. Her books are not flashy but she draws a reader in because she gets life, in all it's absurd realities and misfortunes. Conversational in tone, which gives it a personal touch. She could be speaking to any of us, anywhere. People that fill our lives, past and present,
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thoughts memories. Conversations, internal thoughts, on books, movie, Fox news, our political and climate crisis.

The main part of the book though concentrates on a favor she agrees to do for a dying friend she has not had a relationship with for years. It is a sad situation but the book, words do not come off as particularly grim. It's just life, life and death, realities.

Contemplative, identifiable, a short book in pages but it contains much food for thought. How do we live our days, our lives, who do we meet, think about How do we become involved in things we'd rather not. How one thing leads to another. How these experiences enrich us is ways not immediately apparent. Messy, messy life, full of friendship, love, joy but sorrows too. All making us the people we are.
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LibraryThing member LindaLoretz
Sigrid Nunez has a knack for capturing the elements and delights of significant conversations and human connections. There is nothing like those deep, intimate understandings of our old friends—when we know what they’ve been through and we can stay up all night listening to what they are going
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through now. Some conversations stimulate us as we grow throughout our lives. Sometimes we overhear or hear about a conversation, and other times we are playing an active role.

What are you going through is a fantastic testimony to friendships, especially those that have lasted for decades. The narrator of the story introduces us to her nameless friend at the onset of the book and follows through on the friend’s story of terminal cancer and readiness for death as the book progresses. However, she also includes her observations and interactions with other characters. Some may call her inclusion of these “others” digressions. I think that including her impressions of her ex-lover’s pessimistic academic presentation, the Airbnb host’s insecurities, the gym lady’s struggles, and others were powerful ways to convey the spectrum of relationships in life. Although very sad, the uninspiring, dissatisfying relationship that the narrator has with the elderly lady who idolizes Sean Hannity is poignant in reminding us that some acquaintances can be poisonous to our psyche. Both this lady and another who is in therapy with her friend dare to remind us that some people’s death in our lives does not make us overly sad.

Impending death and death itself is a significant theme of this book, and it is handled not as something to be feared but as part of the life cycle. Without wasting any words, Nunez discusses metaphors for cancer and expresses cynicism for those who preach the power of positive thinking when reality indicates that all the positive thinking in the world cannot change reality. Sigrid Nunez takes pride in not overexplaining and treating her readers as intelligent. The words and analyses in this book are absolutely indicative of her philosophy of writing and truly thought-provoking.
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LibraryThing member jphamilton
I finished "What Are You Going Through" by Sigrid Nunez early this morning and it is such a finely written book. I love how her writing style jumps around between characters, time, and often simply wanders off to a vaguely, or a seemingly totally divorced subject, much like how many of us live our
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lives. I won’t describe exactly how she does it (if I even could), but she eventually brings all these disjointed people and things together, in a very insightful, trippy, and clever way.

When I was only a third of the way through the book, I was ready to give it my top rating. The book is, as NPR said, “A penetrating, moving meditation on loss, comfort, memory, what it means to be a writer today, and various forms of love and friendship …. Nunez has a wry, withering wit.”

Yep, loss of memory and a loss of people, that fits me well at this point in my life. Through books, the news, and movies, I experience so many different stories and thoughts, and all I want to do is share them with my late wife, Vicky, just like I did for more than thirty years. Replacing love and comfort with grief and loneliness is sometimes crippling.

I found myself addicted to Nunez’s writing style and the way she eventually weaves the different threads together into something profound. Her writing seamlessly connects with the emotions and the intellect.

In the book a dying woman is telling about all the encounters in her everyday life, encounters where she detects a common theme reflected in her close friends and complete strangers. These people (maybe all people), have a common need, they want to talk about themselves and to find an audience willing to listen. We all need some connections for our life to have meaning.

A review of this book mentioned empathy and our deep desire for some emotional comfort in our lives, and that struck me as so true. Two other words come to my mind concerning this book, wisdom and a sly humor. The book has many fascinating discussions concerning death, companionship, and life. Nunez is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers on the scene today.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Life, the narrator of Sigrid Nunez’ book might say, is the saddest story ever told. It always ends the same way. Inevitably. The only thing that differentiates the stories is what we do in life, what we go through. Here, although her concern is directed toward what her dying friend is going
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though, it is the narrator herself whose life we briefly share. We learn of her dying friend and her friend’s plan for suicide (there is a disquieting conflation in the text with “euthanasia”). That her friend co-opts her into assisting at least logistically with her plan is perhaps the worst thing that she could do to a “friend”. But there is something egocentrically needy about the prospective suicide that brings her to ignore what her friend is going through. Inevitably (perhaps) plans go awry both pathetically and bathetically (literally, since a bath overflows flooding the house they are renting for the planned action). And so the narrator is given plenty of opportunity for reflection upon her friend, upon herself and her ex, and upon writing in its different guises (both the narrator and her friend are writers). Which might suggest that one of the most important things that one goes through in life, in any life, just might be said reflections and thoughts. And what better to convey what one does, of this kind, than through writing (and subsequently through reading).

Sigrid Nunez presents a narrator with a calm demeanour and a dry wit. Certainly life hasn’t always been rosy for her. And her friends, whether they are lovers or not, aren’t the easiest of people to deal with. But the narrator abides. Or rather, upon her reflection she presents the calmness of the detached observer (who can say how she responds in the moment). It makes for compelling reading. And the insights provided, both direct and oblique, are gently accommodated. I like it, even when I’m not entirely warm to the scenario.

Gently recommended.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
I liked the writing and descriptions chosen better than the content of this book, which at times was tedious. However, it was so interesting that I was very interested in many of the characters. This is also the type of book that makes me wonder what I would do if I were in the situations of many
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of the characters. The many chaaracters are two women, one of whom realizes that she does not want to suffer through her terminal illness.
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LibraryThing member MarthaJeanne
The best thing about this book was that it is short. The characters never feel real. The ending is nonexistant.


Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2022)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Fiction — 2021)


Original language

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