What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez | TheBookBuff Review

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I opted to read What Are You Going Through because of the author. Not that I had read anything by her before, but I just liked how the name rolled in my mouth – Sigrid Nunez. It may seem an odd reason to choose a book, but that’s how the mind works sometimes! :-). 

Anyway, I was glad to see the advance copy of her book arrive in my e-bookshelf. 

I didn’t really dwell upon the book title, but I can be certain that the author clearly did! Seriously, I did not expect this roller coaster of emotions! Honest to God, as I write this review, I am in this love-hate relationship with this book.

Read along if you want to know more about my mind-bending experience.

What Are You Going Through
Author: Sigrid Nunez
Publish date: October 1, 2020
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group (Virago)
Category: General Fiction (Adult)  | Literary Fiction

Book Review

Rating: 2.5/5

Verdict:

I don’t know of any other book that I have so vehemently disliked yet been so vice-like gripped by it. 

This book is a hard read. Not only because it has this running theme about death, but also because it is so unsettling. 

My verdict is that the book is pretty great yet equally pessimistic. There isn’t a shred of hope that you can hold on to.  You’re just plugged into the narrator’s often disjointed thoughts. 

The writing runs like an unfiltered stream of consciousness. It is like that dream you get stuck in, but have no idea what the hell is happening. 

There isn’t a lot of hope and optimistic happy-go-lucky vibes. In fact, there are none. 

Yet I couldn’t stop reading! 

Despite the randomness, it does a good job in provoking discussions. It asks you to ponder over questions you usually do not consider. (Whether you agree with the protagonist’s logic is another discussion altogether.)

That said, it’s not a book that I would recommend to people who have anxiety or depression. Maybe to the millennial to ponder over the future, but then again is it right to burden the young? 

My final takeaway is: It is not for everyone.

Plotline:

So it starts off with a lecture. Yes, really! 

The gist essentially being: Are we not all being just selfish? We have climate change that’s spiralling out of control, we have a million species going extinct, extreme weather events – but what are we doing about it? 

We are going on and on about acceptance, about avoiding stress, preaching Carpe Diem and mindfulness meditation when the reality is that the world has little future.

It questions us if we aren’t being almost amoral by bringing in children into a world that is already doomed? Aren’t there enough children and people who need our care and are already threatened? The intellectual asks you to ponder over these questions.

He insists that we’ve lost hope for a better tomorrow, but all that we can do now is forgive each other. Though this intellectual is key to the central theme, he isn’t the protagonist.

The protagonist is a former journalist whose friend has cancer. This friend has asked our protagonist cum narrator of the impossible: euthanasia. She has asked to support her through her final days. 

The story pushes on but the central theme revolves around the inevitability of death. This is the only consistent thread amongst a string of thoughts that cross the narrator’s mind. 

Through the book we see the world through the narrator’s POV (point of view). She will provoke questions that will keep you from getting too comfortable.

My Opinion:

As much as this book leaves me conflicted, I cannot think of a book more suited for serious discussion in a book club setting.

This book forces you to ask yourself questions that you’ve not considered. These questions are hard hitting, and though at times quite unpalatable, and perhaps some of these questions do need to be asked. 

Whether you agree with the protagonist’s logic is another discussion altogether.

In my opinion, it is not a book I would recommend to someone who is going through anxiety and depression. It would scare me what it would do to such a fragile mind. Would they even wait till the end or find the questions enough to spark a downward spiral? 

Another thing was the general America bashing in the book. I don’t know if we really needed all the references to how they’ve not done enough for climate change. Honestly, mistakes have been made by everyone. Singling out one country, one elected leader, as the trouble maker to me seemed more like finger-pointing. 

One thing I definitely did not like was the way suicide and pandemic linked death was made to come across as a natural solution for environment conservation. I didn’t approve of that line of thought. 

Lastly, I found it quite ironic when the narrator quotes, “It is the writer’s privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.” The narrator quotes William Faulkner but doesn’t act on this wisdom.

Lines from the book that have stayed with me:

  • “I find someone comparing the experience of watching a person die with the intensity of falling in love.” 
  • “When you are born into this world there are at least two of you, but going out you are on your own…”
  • “Death happens to every one of us, yet it remains the most solitary of human experiences…”
  • ” This is how it is with people, she tells me now. No matter what, they want you to keep fighting. This is how we’ve been taught to see cancer…”
  • ” Most people are in denial about ageing, just as they are about dying. Though they see it happening all around them…”
  • ” In our culture, what you look like is such an important part of who you are and how people treat you…”
  • “He thinks you can take away people’s hope and then expect them to … love and take care of each other?”
  • ” The power of denial. It’s happened more than once… The boundless capacity of the human mind for self delusion…”
  • “The mindfulness rage was just another distraction, he said. Of course we should be stressed”

How to Buy the Book:

The book will release on Oct 1, 2020, but you can pre-order it here [Amazon weblink]

About the Author:

Sigrid Nunez is quite a celebrated author. She’s won several awards for her writing including a Whiting Award for emerging writers, a Berlin Prize Fellowship, the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Her work gets often featured in magazines & journals of note such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, New Yorker, Threepenny Review, Harper’s, etc.

Most notably, Sigrid Nunez received the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction for her book, The Friend.

Her short stories have also featured in award winning anthologies including four Pushcart Prize volumes. One short story also was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2019.

For a sample of her short stories, you can go to the following links: 

Here are a couple of video links of interviews where you can get to know her better: 

Questions for the Book Club:

(IMP: SPOILER ALERT, visit this section only after you’ve read the book):

  1. The opening lecture is actually quite brilliant and yet disturbing. This ‘intellectual’ asks us to consider our existence. He pushes us to ask if we are living in denial ensconced in a bubble of “mindful meditation” and other pseudo techniques that are asking us to live in the now. He says we are wrongfully avoiding stress. As a reader, what are your thoughts on this subject? Do you agree with the lecturer?
  2. The lecturer says the world has little hope now. But it begs the question: can you really forgive, love and care for each other when there is no hope? Is it even right to remove the idea of hope?
  3. The book mentions that as a child we experience pure bliss – for example, the fulfilment of a birthday gift we’ve so desired. However, as a grown-up, we never experience it as we have too many desires. Do you think as adults we no longer are capable of the innocent joys of our younger days?
     
  4. The ‘ex’ lecturer points out that it is amoral to have children when the earth is already riddled with existential threats such as climate change. He says there are already enough children who need a home, so asks why we procreate. There is a reference that in the future children might sue their parents for having them. What are your thoughts on this subject?
     
  5. There is this justification for suicide and pandemic linked death to enable environment conservation. Do you think this extreme view is actually a harbinger of truth?
  6. There are references to how old age steals our youth. The theme seems to ask us to consider ageing a traumatic event, especially, for beautiful women. Do you agree? Are skincare products using the same philosophy to retail their products? Is it justified?
  7. Is it true, as the intellectual says, that humans are in a state of denial? Are people in love also delusional? 
  8. There is a hypothetical discussion:  Is it that ‘language’, even when it is the same, is understood differently by each individual. Is it this difference in perception that is the source of human misery? Do people in love speak a common language or also suffer from the same affliction? Do you agree that the multiplicity of language stymies human progress?
  9. There is a portrait of a beautiful, busty lady in the living room. The journalist’s friend says she imagined her standing next to her at her bedside. The narrator thinks inwardly that it wasn’t a dream, but she too saw her. What was the significance of this ghostly apparition?
  10. “I took out my phone, that reliable prop, and spent a few moments tickling it”. How often have we done the same to escape from the immediate environment? Is it a prop to escape reality?
  11. ” In our culture, what you look like is such an important part of who you are and how people treat you…”  Do you agree with the narrator’s observation?

Disclaimer: Thanks to #NetGalley for #WhatAreYouGoingThrough – an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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