After reading the first few pages of Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The weekend, I was starting to wonder how on earth these women, with “their same scratchy old ways”, could be described as “dearest friends”. They seemed so different, and so irritated or, sometimes, cowed by each other’s differences. Where was their point of connection I wondered, besides their late friend Sylvie?
But, let’s start at the beginning. My edition’s back cover describes the set up beautifully: “Four older women have a lifelong friendship of the best kind: loving, practical, frank and steadfast. But when Sylvie dies, the ground shifts dangerously for the other three. Can they survive together without her?” Well, they are going to find out, because the book concerns a weekend – a Christmas weekend, in fact – in which the remaining three come to Sylvie’s beach-house to clean it out for sale. It’s a thankless task at the best of times, so when you get three very different, but still grieving personalities doing it, the stage is set for tension, at the very least.
Who then are these three? There’s retired restaurateur Jude who has had a married lover for over forty years; public intellectual Wendy whose much loved husband died many years ago and who now has the frail, demented dog Finn in tow; and out-of-work actor Adele whose relationship has just fallen apart, leaving her homeless. Wood sets the scene, and establishes their characters perfectly through describing their journey to and arrival at the beach-house (much like the opening title sequence for another house-party story, The big chill.) We quickly learn that Jude is organised, task-focused, financially comfortable and disdainful of other people’s frailties; that Wendy is disorganised and soft, but emotional and loyal; and that vain but always optimistic Adele is seen by her friends as “the child” of the group. While Wendy and Jude work at their Jude-assigned tasks, she can be found reminiscing over Sylvie’s LP collection.
Over the weekend, the women’s friendship is tested to its limits. Early on, Wendy reflects that “it was exhausting, being friends”, while Adele remembers their early years of friendship, and how they “saw their best selves in each other”. But, how honest are they, can they be, should they be with each other? Adele ponders early, that “it was dangerous business, truth-telling”. Over the weekend, of course, some truths come out – what they think about each other, and truths that were supposed to be secrets. And yet, the friendship holds fast:
Because what was friendship, after forty years? What would it be after fifty or sixty? It was a mystery. It was immutable, a force as deep and invitable as the vibration of the ocean coming to her through the sand.
However, there is a fourth main character in this story – the aforementioned Finn whom Wendy brings with her knowing full well that Jude would not be impressed. But what was she to do? Living alone and unwilling to euthanise him, she had no option. Utterly frail in body and mind, he is a significant character – or, at least, plays a significant role – in the book. This role is bifold. Firstly, we gain more information about the women’s characters and their attitudes to aging and death through their attitudes and reactions to him. His physical and mental frailty, his incontinence, deafness and blindness, confront the women with their own mortality. No-nonsense Jude doesn’t want him and his mess around, and thinks, frankly, he should be put down. She is barely aware of Finn’s importance to Wendy. Adele isn’t enamoured but more tolerant and understanding, while Wendy, for whom Finn was a lifeline after her husband’s death, finds it impossible to think about euthanasia. His presence throughout the novel sometimes mirrors, sometimes opposes the women’s volatile emotional states.
But, the other more interesting role played by Finn has to do with one of the novel’s over-riding themes, one triggered by ageing. It’s the question of what have I lived for, what have I achieved, when have I “finished [my] turn”? Wendy and Adele, for example, both feel they have more to achieve. For Wendy, it’s the intellectual idea she feels she’s moving towards, “the place she had always felt was there waiting for her”, and for Adele, it’s “clawing back her one great moment on the stage”. Jude’s life is more about “gathering experience, formulating opinions, developing ideas” to “fold away and save for” those times her married lover is able to see her. So, the underlying question is: When you no longer have those seemingly limitless goals of youth, what goals do you have, where do they come from, and what happens when you, perhaps, run out of goals or purpose? Finn offers this opposite – “simple creatureliness”, or, just being. This issue of goals and purpose is, I believe, one of the biggest challenges of ageing – alongside the obvious physical ones – and I love that Wood takes it on.
However, she doesn’t stop there, because her women also confront other ageing-related issues – increasing homelessness for older women, the threat of loneliness that often attends age, and coping with technological and cultural change not to mention with children who start to parent you.
To keep this story and its tensions focused, Wood uses the house-party setting, as many other authors have done before including John Clanchy in his novel Sisters (my review). I didn’t much like the melodramatic party scene, involving two interlopers, that occurs near the end, but this is a common trope, I think, in the house-party sub-genre. Overall, I loved the writing. It’s tight. We shift seamlessly between the characters without getting lost, each one nicely differentiated, and there are some spot-on images:
Every time Jude had to hold her tongue, every time she didn’t tell Wendy she should pay him the kindness of letting him die, she felt falsehood pulled tighter like a plastic bag, closer, closer over her mouth and nose. She couldn’t bear it.
Outside the cicadas were filling the still summer air with sound. You must shed the dead skin … The bush was full of insects and snakes reborn, shining with newness. The dried carapaces rustled as the resurrected creatures slithered out of, away from, their dead selves. You had to struggle free from what had protected you.
By now, you may be thinking that this a grim book, but while its intent is serious, Wood’s touch is light, using some humour – sometimes generous, sometimes satirical or ironic – in the telling. This humour – as in the scene describing Adele, in the park, having just peed, running into a theatre producer – keeps these women real and relatable, and the tone edging to hopeful.
You would think that The weekend would be the perfect pick for my reading group, given we are all women not much younger than Wood’s protagonists and that many of us have been friends for thirty years plus. And yet, the responses of the twelve members present at our meeting were mixed. One group was ambivalent, arguing that the characters were too much like types, while the other loved it, believing it captured the dynamics of longtime women’s friendships with heart and humour. You know which group I belonged to – for all the reasons I’ve described above.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed the book.
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)