From the National Book Award-winning author of The Friend. A meditation on our contemporary era, as a solitary female narrator asks what it means to be alive at this complex moment in history and considers how our present reality affects the way a person looks back on her past. Humor, to be sure, is a priceless refuge. Equally vital is connection with others, who here include an adrift member of Gen Z and a spirited parrot named Eureka. The Vulnerables reveals what happens when strangers are willing to open their hearts to each other and how far even small acts of caring can go to ease another's distress.
Animals and uncomfortable topics: Count on these in a Sigrid Nunez novel. Her slim, discursive, minor yet charming new one, The Vulnerables, is no exception ... This one comes across as a Covid diary, with a light scaffolding of incident to hold its meditations up. The narrator’s interactions with the parrot are funny and moving ... I can do without animals, most of the time, in novels. But Nunez is a closer observer than most, and she is wittier ... Like certain storms, this novel churns intensely in one place. There is a bit more plot ... I am committed, until one of us dies, to Nunez’s novels. I find them ideal. They are short, wise, provocative, funny — good and strong company ... You don’t have to follow her all the way, and start digging the novel’s grave, to sense that she is onto something. It has always been true: Being told about life, by a perceptive writer, can be as good as, if not better than, being told a story.
Slim, ruminative, by turns wry and witty, with a reluctantly aging, exceedingly well-read, writer-narrator very like Sigrid Nunez herself, all three novels are marked by their author’s formidable intelligence, refusal of simple answers or reductive pieties, and eccentric blend of profundity and playfulness. All three are stuffed with quotations from philosophers, poets, and novelists, meditate on the writer’s calling and the value of writing in an increasingly commercial world, and address suffering, disappointment, and loss with honesty and humor ... Haphazardly constructed and overstuffed, crammed with news headlines and anecdotes, lines and observations from other writers. After an arresting first few pages about life during the pandemic, we flash back, and almost 70 pages are devoted to a group of old friends reuniting at a funeral for one of their circle and to the childhood memories that surface as a result. Their discussions about cancel culture in particular feel a bit hackneyed ... But once we enter the pandemic in earnest, the novel hits its (ambling) stride ... At 242 pages, The Vulnerables is about 30 pages longer than its predecessors, and the extra weight makes it less nimble. It is a bit less disciplined and a bit less emotionally powerful than its trilogy-mates, and Nunez’s snark about identity politics and 'our brave new cultural world' feels a bit too querulous and tetchy this time around. But to say that The Vulnerables is the weakest of the three books is merely to say that it isn’t a flat-out masterpiece, so high has Nunez set the bar.
Little explosions of pathos detonate periodically through this story — their power even more impressive for the way Nunez repeatedly lulls us into the comfort of her wry, ruminative voice ... I can’t remember another novel that felt so stuffed with literary allusions, quotations and references.