Cover Image: What Are You Going Through

What Are You Going Through

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Member Reviews

Sigrid Nunez has fashioned a novel that takes on unanticipated meaning in these pandemic days of distance from friends and strangers alike. The reader is back in a world where it is possible and usual to interact with  acquaintances face to face . It is possible but less usual to find a relationship deepening in a surprisingly intimate direction and to a level that challenges each person's humanity. The Friend shows relationship through one prism. What You Are Going Through moves to a different view and the reader is well rewarded by minimal foreknowledge of the goings on.
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Nunez quotes Simone Weil, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’” But she could have just as easily quoted Sartre, “Hell is other people.”
Nunez conveys the daily anguish of attempting to communicate with those around her, from her character’s most intimate friends to total strangers. None of the characters are named. The main character is merely “the woman” and the other characters defined according to her relationship with hyphen. And isn’t that remarkably spot on about the human condition? In many ways, the people and places we know cease to exist when we aren’t interacting with them. 
The lack of character names serves to anonymize them, while making their relationship to the main character somehow more meaningful. That same lack foregrounds the reader’s empathy and encourages us to identify with the character. Furthermore, the writer quotes extensively from philosophers and other thinkers. The novel is grounded with all the weight of historical minds, while sharply contrasting with the nameless characters. We know the details about these dead people, but have to strain to tease apart the complexities of the fictional characters.
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For fans of THE FRIEND, there is much familiar in WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH--a dispassionate series of portraits carved of superbly crafted prose. While the first portion of the novel follows the lives of several characters, the final portion narrows its focus to delve with unflinching intensity on a narrower cast. Not quite as enthralling as the author's previous novel, but a masterfully rich read.
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Like most books about dying, it leaves you feeling unmoored and adrift in existential thoughts. Nunez had distilled this extremely layered experience of watching a loved one suffer illness and decide to die into a short volume that is as affecting as it is brief. Oh and there's a section from the viewpoint of a cat so...points for that.
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If you have read Sigrid Nunez's The Friend before, you may find this book a little bit familiar. There are plenty of literary references and the narrator may be the same female writer/professor from the previous book. Both books also deal with similar issue, from different perspectives. While I enjoyed reading What Are You Going Through, I can't help but feel that it doesn't have the same charms that The Friend does.
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The Friend is one of my favorite books of the past few years. If you liked it, and/or Rachel Cusk’s  Outline and its two companion books, you are likely to love What Are You Going Through. The description seems a bit off to me. Yes, the first part contains “a series of encounters” with “various people,” but the second and third parts are a deep dive into a single relationship. And Nunez’s description of that relationship and its shifting boundaries is precise, searching, and often quite funny. So let yourself be pulled by the currents of associations and references, but also sink into a narrative that’s both profound and buoyant.
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