The Vulnerables

The Vulnerables is not Sigrid Nunez's first pandemic fiction; she published the prescient Salvation City in 2010, spotlighting a global flu outbreak. This time, Nunez turns her lens inward, focusing on a writer past her mid-60s, contemplating existence with still-close college friends who have briefly reunited just in time for the funeral of one of their own. In hindsight, the gathering would be "the last time any of us would be traveling anywhere--for more than a year," as the lockdown begins.

Upon returning to Manhattan, the unnamed writer/narrator is asked to be companion and caretaker to Eureka, a highly intelligent and sociable macaw, when the owners become stranded in California as Covid-19 quickly spreads. The request speaks to the writer's childhood aspiration to work with animals. She easily connects with Eureka and settles into a comfortable routine. All goes well until Eureka's originally assigned birdsitter--a troubled young man fleeing his unaccepting parents--returns unexpectedly. With the writer's own apartment now occupied by a friend's sister, the writer struggles to readjust to the latest changes, particularly in overcoming her disdain for this often thoughtless new roommate.

Deftly integrated into a familiar narrative of discordant strangers bonding, The Vulnerables is a penetrating interrogation of the nature of reading, writing, creating fiction--especially in a time of widespread peril: "images of harrowed health care workers made it hard to see inventing stories about made-up people as a heroic profession." Grateful readers can only hope that Nunez (The Friend) will continue her essential work of "making it up" for volumes to come. --Terry Hong

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