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Erica’s Pick of the Week: The Vulnerables

If you were to construct a list of story elements that do not entice me, it would include:

  • Pandemic stories (I am ready for some precedented times.) 
  • Bird stories (I like my pets with fur.) 
  • Autofiction (novels where the author is also a character) 

So at first glance, The Vulnerables, Sigrid Nunez’s pandemic novel about an author named Sigrid Nunez and an exotic bird…doesn’t seem like my kind of book. I started it anyway.  

Two pages in, I was utterly consumed by this witty, poignant story about finding hope and connection in difficult times. 

In the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown, the unnamed narrator moves into her friend’s New York  apartment to bird-sit their macaw, Eureka. The friends are stuck in California, and Eureka needs companionship. As it turns out, so does the narrator, an older woman considered “vulnerable” to Covid. An author, she’s struggling with writers’ block, spending her days wandering the empty city and overthinking things. Woman and bird strike up a friendship and settle into a routine.  

Then Eureka’s original sitter, a troubled college student, returns. Initially annoyed by the intrusion, the narrator, the student, and Eureka gradually form an unexpected bond.  

On the surface, not much happens. There’s a lot of meandering through NYC. A few disconcerting interactions with strangers. Some flashbacks. Eureka shows off his (many) tricks. The narrator tries dairy-free ice cream. But it’s not what happens that makes The Vulnerables compelling, it’s how the story is told. Nunez’s writing is tender and melancholy, capturing the disbelief and disruption so prevalent during the pandemic, while finding beauty in unexpected places. Her humor is sly and smart, full of wickedly funny one-liners.  

Yes, the author and narrator seem to share a name. Probably, the real Sigrid Nunez thinks about books and writing as much as her fictional counterpart – the novel is jam-packed with literary references. But the narrator doesn’t feel gimmicky. Rather, she feels like so many of us did when the world shut down: unsettled and hungry for connection, whether with a pet, nature, or other people. That connection makes us, as the title suggests, vulnerable – but it might also be what saves us.  

If you enjoyed Jenny Offill’s Weather or Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary – or any introspective, beautifully written books about the challenges of modern life – The Vulnerables is not to be missed.  

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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