When I was sixteen, I visited my grandma one afternoon and, on arriving at her house, found her in tears. The last of the ‘Old Girls’ had died. The ‘Old Girls’ were her life-long friends – a group of women who had met during the War and stayed close for decades. They always referred to themselves as the ‘Old Girls’, even when they were young women. And so suddenly, my grandma was the last Old Girl. It was deeply shocking for me because, until that moment, I had never really thought about friends dying.
This is the subject of Charlotte Wood’s novel, The Weekend. Three friends in their seventies gather for a last weekend at the holiday home of their mutual friend, Sylvie, who has recently died. There’s former restaurateur Jude, organised and bossy; Wendy, an acclaimed intellectual, who continues to write; and beautiful, flighty Adele, a renowned actress whose work has dwindled to almost nothing. Over the course of the weekend, the dynamics of their relationships are revealed, and the absence of Sylvie felt.
This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty. And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another.
I could go into the detail of why this book is wonderfully written. Wood’s –
- crisp sentences (‘Jude too felt the pull of the ocean, its great rejoicing, dismissing force, but she had not worn her costume.’);
- dry wit (‘Jude felt it was rather boastful of Adele to have quite so much hair. It was the kind seen in promotions for retirement living, the ads pretending that growing old could be anything but contemptable.’)
- truths (‘…Adele made a leisurely inspection of the other women’s toiletry bags. A shared bathroom was where private vulnerabilities were revealed.’);
- pointed observations (Wendy identifies the shortcomings in her brother and sister-in-law as both having no ‘inner life’ – ‘Catherine’s book club worked doggedly through the Booker shortlist, coming down on the side of the winner if they knew the author already, against if they didn’t.’)
There’s also the importance of Finn, an elderly dog, who provides a focus for the women’s attitudes toward ageing. And this is not a gentle story – the plot twists are delivered with cool restraint, but are shocking nonetheless.
All that said, I read this book as soon as it was released in October 2019 and the particulars have been forgotten. Instead, it’s the themes that have stayed with me – grief; our perception of ageing; and most notably, the significance of long friendships.
The story highlights interesting aspects of long friendships, particularly how they carry on as relationship status and family obligations change. I am extremely fortunate to have a number of groups of old friends (school, university, my book group, my mothers group). Of those, the ‘oldest’ group is the ‘Katies chicks’, on account of the four of us enduring casual jobs at Katies, rather than Sportsgirl/ Portmans/ Cherry Lane where we longed to be. We’ve been friends for 32 years, and we have seen each other through crushes, heartbreaks, first-loves, bad hair and puffy sleeves, career changes, tragedies, marriage, babies…and now grey hair (thanks to COVID-19). These women are so important to me, I love them dearly, and I can’t imagine my life without them in it.
As it happened, I went to the Melbourne launch of The Weekend with one of the Katies chicks, and we spent a lot of time afterwards discussing the question presented in the book – in older age, are we still open and flexible, the things friendship requires? Long friendships can cement us into certain roles – are we a different person outside that friendship group? Equally, does our role in other friendship groups vary?
The book also highlighted the fact that enduring friendships have highs and lows, ruptures and repairs. The women’s observations about the things that irritated them about the others made me laugh and feel a little heartbroken –
Jude about Adele – Most of the time Adele was like a four-year-old at a birthday party; she tried to behave well at first, to suppress her need, but would yield almost instantly to the desire to snatch and grasp.
Wendy about Jude – …there was something of the undertaker about Jude. She radiated a kind of grim satisfaction when things went wrong for other people.
Adele on the ‘ease’ between Jude and Wendy – She stayed…fighting the small loneliness that came upon her in moments like this. They love you too, she reasoned….they do. But love was not the same as respect.
Ultimately, there was so much I could identify with in this book (and for this reason, it’s the ideal book for firing up conversation in even the most reticent book group). Since reading it last year, I have often thought about the characters (including the wretched Finn) and their changing group.
5/5 Everything I want in a novel.
Despite it being a ‘tradition’, Jude finds reason not to make a pavlova –
But the humidity would make a meringue collapse; it was going o be wretchedly hot. They were all too fat anyway, especially Wendy. Christmas be damned, they would have fruit and yoghurt.