Weekday Reading: Charlotte Wood’s “The Weekend”

Reading a new novel is like taking a recreational drug that has absolutely no side effects. You read it, you enjoy it, and you never think of it again.

That is the case with The Weekend, a short, very sad novel by Charlotte Wood. You may know her as the winner of the Stella Prize in Australia for her dystopian novel, The Natural Way of Things.

In The Weekend, Wood explores friendship, old age, and death. Three older women, Jude, a controlling former restaurateur, Wendy, a renowned writer, and Adele, a former actress, gather for Christmas at the house of their old friend, Sylvie. She has recently died, and they are cleaning and clearing out the house. Without Sylvie, the atmosphere is tense and their friendship unraveling. Their attitudes towards death–denial, grief, and anger–begin to control the narrative.

The central issue is, oddly, the presence of Wendy’s very old dog, Finn. Early on, we meet Wendy in her car with Finn, whom she loves dearly, and who was a gift from Sylvie. He is now deaf, very old, and dependent. He often pees on the floor. And when Wendy’s car breaks down and they are waiting for assistance, of course he pees on Wendy, and the car stinks. Jude is so angry at Wendy’s arrival reeking of urine that she seems about to explode. (She has already had a small stroke, but nobody knows. )

Wendy is calm and casually cleans up Finn’s messes. But Jude insists the solution is to have Finn “put down.” Wendy ignores her, because she will let Finn live out his life.

The arrival of Adele, once a successful actress, leavens the narrative, because she lives in her imagination. She dismisses her own problems: she is penniless and about to be homeless. In her mind, she has, at 70, a chance to replay her successful Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? No one knows about her fantasies (at first), but Jude dismisses her as a lightweight, and Wendy coddles her because she is needy. Nonetheless, all three must confront the possibility of their own deaths.

Now you may think you’ve read this book before, or at least one or two like it. I kept thinking of Graham Swift’s Last Orders, about a group of friends who gather to dispose of a friend’s ashes. Now that is a perfect book!

This is pretty good, though not great. I was moved by the ending of The Weekend. Is it enough to be moved by a book? It probably is. Wood is an excellent plotter, the style is very plain and simple (perhaps too plain), and Wendy is an especially vivid character. I sometimes doubted Jude. I did prefer The Natural Way of Things–a very different novel.

The Weekend looked chic on a tiny table with just a few books on it at Barnes and Noble. (The design has improved greatly under the auspices of CEO James Daunt, who is also CEO of Waterstones in the UK.)

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