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.
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This is the best review I’ve read…
Just recently when my MIL died, the last of her friends alive told me that they had been friends for 80 years, and now she is the only one left. She has family, but you could see what an immense loss she had suffered.
Mind you, I could not stand Jude. Why anyone would want to be friends with her I do not know, she reminded me of the most horrible person I know…
Thank you Lisa (and I thought I was rambling….!).
Having family is so different to having friends. I know when I observed my grandmother’s grief, I registered it as something quite different to the loss of a parent or grandparent. Although it doesn’t make it easier, somewhere in the corner of our minds, we are prepared for the natural order of life – we know our parents and grandparents will die. But having peers die is another thing altogether, particularly when you’ve lost the people who would ordinarily provide you comfort (which I certainly rely on my friends for!).
Like you, I wondered why Jude was in the group. When I looked back over the passages I’d marked, there was one about when the women met (in their thirties) and how Jude kept a table at the restaurant for them, set aside the wine, was always the ‘host’. My guess is being ‘looked after’ like this is what they loved about her – that seemed to morph over the years to something quite grudging (as Jude became less ‘generous’) but that was the only evidence I could find in Jude’s favour!
You might be right… an organiser to keep them together? But still, I hated her for her cruelty — especially about the dog.
5/5! I marked it a long way short of that. I didn’t think it got being in your 60s right. These women felt late 70s. But it seems I’m the only one in step in this matter, probably something to do with women’s friendships I just don’t get.
Yes, I think we agreed to disagree on this one Bill 🙂
To me, the friendships felt authentic – the dialogue, the inner dialogue, the pettiness and the overwhelming (but somewhat conditional) love is very much my experience of female friendship groups (as opposed to one-on-one friendships, where the dynamic is different).
Needless to say, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have groups of friends that I have known for a very long time.
Great review. I liked the book but didn’t love it. I don’t really have a group of female friends (I’ve moved around too much and never had children; you get dropped pretty quickly when friends go off and have babies), so I couldn’t tell you how authentic it was. I just know I enjoyed the story and thought the personalities were interesting and distinctive.
I think moving around makes friendship groups very difficult to continue – they automatically change when you’re minus a member.
Not sure if you did the unit on group dynamics when you studied planning but it’s funny how often I think about it when I read about groups of friends (which is regularly because I love books about friends!).
This sounds right up my alley, a little like Victoria Redel’s Before Everything in its themes.
I don’t know of Before Everything – another to add to my list!
This sounds wonderfiul – it’s refreshing to hear about a book focusing on older groups of friends rather than twenty or thirty somethings!
Yes, it highlighted how few books there are that focus on older females and their relationships (that aren’t related to dementia or illness).
This is coming out in the UK in June — hurrah! (Too often I spy an interesting-looking book on your blog but know it will be impossible to get hold of.)
We are a bit lucky in Australia to be ‘in the middle’ of the UK and US, so we tend to get most books as soon as they are released in their respective countries. That said, please email me if there’s something you’re desperate to get a hold of 🙂
I’m adding this to my list about older adults in literature. I’ll have to check if it’s available in the U.S. Thanks for your thorough review.
Hopefully because of the success of Wood’s last book (The Natural Way of Things), The Weekend will be released in the US.
5/5! I have huge expectations for this so I’m so glad to hear how much you loved it. I have many old friends from school/uni/first jobs etc but we’re not a group. Group dynamics are always interesting though, and this is a really clever way to explore it. I’m impatient for the UK release!
I did think about how my individual friendships differ from those in groups. Although I see my ‘group friends’ individually as well, the dynamic is different.
Part of my reason for the 5/5 was that it was a relatively easy read – there’s lots to think about, bits made me laugh and cry, but overall, it wasn’t taxing or heavy – the perfect weekend read!
I think yours is the third or fourth review I’ve seen of this book over the last few months, and it sounds like the kind of story I would enjoy, as I like reading about older women although I am not yet in that age group. I’ll certainly try to get hold of it when it is released in the UK.
It has been included on an Australian literary prize shortlist, so I imagine a few reviews have been popping up. Although the women are older, I think there’s a lot about their relationships that speaks to anyone who has a group of old friends, and for that reason alone has broader appeal.
This sounds so good! There’s something so special and unique about friendships that stay with you over long periods; I’m fortunate to have a group of friends dating back to the third grade (20+ years ago now!). This premise also reminds me of my grandma and her 2 best friends from high school. They were a trio right up until my Nana died in her 80s and I always loved the glimpse they gave me of the woman she was before being a grandmother or a mother or even a wife.
I think that’s it – being the ‘person’ you are before a partner/ family and those other roles.
Great review Kate – partly because I loved reading all the quotes which reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading about these characters. We talked in my reading group (which has been going for 32 years now with a few of us original ones still there). We talked about who we identified with. There were a couple of Judes, not many Adeles, and a few Wendys. I reckon I’m a mix of Wendy (daggy) and Jude (organised) but I’m not fun-on either of them. Haha. I have no Adele in me that I can see.
As soon as I read the book, I started writing a little quiz to identify which character you identified with… do you think I can find that scrap of paper five months later? Grrr. Anyway, even though we didn’t learn much about Sylvie, I feel like I’m Wendy and Sylvie combo.
Ah yes, I didn’t think Sylvie … that would more me as my organisation is more about getting people together. If you ever find that quiz ….
full-on! I meant, not fun-on.
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