Review: 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 (not unlike Nunez), 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 and she easily connects with Eureka: "Like many who lack patience dealing with other humans, when it comes to animals I have all the time in the world." She settles into a comfortable routine: "Just one of the countless bizarreries of lockdown life: an entire luxury boutique building and a full staff, all for one little old bird and me."

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 frontline pulmonologist--a friend's sister who left Oregon to volunteer with coronavirus patients in Manhattan--the writer struggles to readjust to the latest changes, particularly in overcoming her disdain for this often thoughtless new roommate. Indeed, during this mandated isolation, quotidian existence parallels the life of an exotic bird relegated to--no matter how nice--a cage.

The pandemic proves to be quite the equalizer, as Nunez (The Friend) adroitly turns each of the characters--regardless of age, gender, privileged backgrounds or not--into the titular vulnerables, confronting exposure to illness, isolation, rejection, homelessness, and death. 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." Even as Nunez regales, frustrates, entertains, impacts her audience, she also reminds them slyly: "how could any of this have really happened? I must be making it up." Grateful readers can only hope that Nunez will continue her essential work of "making it up" for volumes to come. --Terry Hong, BookDragon

Shelf Talker: National Book Award-winning Sigrid Nunez presents a spare, remarkable novel featuring an unnamed narrator contemplating the nature of writing fiction amid the global Covid-19 pandemic.

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