Shortlisted for the 2020 Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award * Shortlisted for the Stella Prize 2020 * Longlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Award
“The Big Chill with a dash of Big Little Lies . . . Knife-sharp and deeply alive.” —The Guardian (London)
“An insightful, poignant, and fiercely honest novel about female friendship and female aging.” —Sigrid Nunez, National Book Award–winning author of The Friend
“Friendship, ambition, love, sexual politics and death: it’s all here in one sharp, funny, heartbreaking, and gorgeously written package. I loved it.” —Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train
Three women in their seventies reunite for one last, life-changing weekend in the beach house of their late friend.
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 remaining three.
They are Jude, a once-famous restaurateur; Wendy, an acclaimed public intellectual; and Adele, a renowned actress now mostly out of work. Struggling to recall exactly why they’ve remained close all these years, the grieving women gather at Sylvie’s old beach house—not for festivities this time, but to clean it out before it is sold. Can they survive together without her?
Without Sylvie to maintain the group’s delicate equilibrium, frustrations build and painful memories press in. Fraying tempers, an elderly dog, unwelcome guests, and too much wine collide in a storm that brings long-buried hurts to the surface—and threatens to sweep away their friendship for good.
The Weekend explores growing old and growing up, and what happens when we’re forced to uncover the lies we tell ourselves. Sharply observed and excruciatingly funny, this is a jewel of a book: a celebration of tenderness and friendship from an award-winning writer.
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It was not the first time it had happened, this waking early in the pale light with a quiet but urgent desire to go to church.
Cognitive decline, doubtless. Frontal-lobe damage, religion, fear of death-they were all the same thing. Jude had no illusions.
This longing-was it a longing? It was mysterious, an insistence inside her, a sort of ache that came and went, familiar and yet still powerful and surprising when it arrived. Like the arthritis that flared at the base of her thumb. The point was, this feeling had nothing to do with Christmas or with anything in her waking life. It came somehow from the world of sleep, from her dreaming self.
At first when it came, it would trouble her, but now Jude gave herself over to it. She lay in her white bed on the morning before Christmas Eve and imagined the cool, dark space of a cathedral, where she might be alone, welcomed by some unseen, velvety force. She imagined herself kneeling, resting her head on the ancient wood of the pew in front of her, and closing her eyes. It was peaceful, in that quiet space of her imagination.
Frontal-lobe shrinkage, doubtless. At this age it was inevitable.
She pictured the soft gray sphere of her brain and remembered lambs' brains on a plate. She used to enjoy eating brains; it was one of the dishes she ordered often with Daniel. But the last time she did-three tender, tiny things lined up along a rectangular plate-she was revolted. Each one was so small you could fit it in a dessert spoon, and in this fashionable Turkish restaurant they were unadorned, undisguised by crumbs or garnish, just three bald, poached splotches on a bed of green. She ate them, of course she did, it was part of her code: You did not refuse what was offered. Chosen, indeed, here. But at first bite, the thing yielded in her mouth, too rich, like just-soft butter, tepid and pale gray, the color and taste of moths or death. In that moment she was shocked into a vision of the three lambs, each one its own conscious self, with its own senses, its intimate pleasures and pains. After a mouthful she could not go on, and Daniel ate the rest. She had wanted to say, I don't want to die.
Of course she did not say that. Instead she asked Daniel about the novel he was reading. William Maxwell, or William Trevor, she often confused the two. He was a good reader, Daniel. A true reader. Daniel laughed at men who did not read fiction, which was nearly all the men he knew. They were afraid of something in themselves, he said. Afraid of being shown up, of not understanding-or more likely the opposite: They would be led to understanding themselves, and it scared the shit out of them. Daniel snorted. They said they didn't have time for it, which was the biggest joke of all.
Jude pulled the sheet up to her chin. The day felt sticky already; the sheet was cool over her clammy body.
What would happen if she did not wake, one of these mornings? If she died one night in her bed? Nobody would know. Days would pass. Eventually Daniel would call and get no answer. Then what? They had never discussed this: what to do if she died in her bed.
Last Christmas, Sylvie was here, and this one she wasn't-and now they were going to clear out the house at Bittoes. Take anything you want, Gail had said to them from Dublin in an e-mail. Have a holiday. How you could think cleaning your dead friend's house a holiday . . . but it was Christmas, and Gail felt guilty for flitting off back to Ireland and leaving it to them. So. Take anything you want.
There was nothing Jude wanted. She couldn't speak for the others.
Sylvie had been in the ground for eleven months.
The memorial had been in the restaurant (unrecognizable now from the old days-everything but the name had gone), and there were beautiful food and good champagne, good speeches. Wendy spoke brilliantly, honestly, poetically. Gail lurched with a silent, terrible sobbing, with Sylvie's poor sad brother, Colin, beside her, unable to touch Gail for comfort. He was eighty-one; he'd been a greenskeeper at the golf club in their hometown, stayed long after the rest of the family left. Never managed to get over his sister's being gay.
In the end Sylvie went where nobody expected: an old-fashioned burial in Mona Vale, next to her parents. To this part Jude and Wendy and Adele went with Colin, and Gail, and Andy and Elektra from the old days. There they'd all stood in the hot cemetery with a sympathetic priest (a priest! for Sylvie!), and Jude had picked up a handful of dirt and thrown it down. Strange that in all these years it was the first time she'd ever done that, or even seen it done outside a film. She felt silly squatting in the dirt, scrabbling in the dry gravel with her polished nails, but when she stretched and flung and let the earth rain down on Sylvie's coffin, a breath of awful sorrow swept through her, up and out of her body into the deafening, glittering white noise of the cicadas.
Sylvie was dead and felt no pain. They had said good-bye. Nothing was left to regret, but she was still in there, in that box, under the weight of all that earth, her cold little body rotted away.
Gail said she looked peaceful at the end. But that wasn't peace; it was absence of muscle tone, of life. Being dead made you look younger, it was a fact. Jude had seen six or seven dead faces now, and they all, in the moment after life left, smoothed out and looked like their much younger selves. Even like babies once or twice.
How long did it take a corpse to rot? Sylvie would screech at a question like that. You're so ghoulish, Jude.
The ceiling fan in her bedroom rotated slowly, ticking, above her. Her life was as clean and bare as a bone, bare as that white blade, its path through the unresisting air absolutely known, unwavering. This should be a comfort. It was a comfort. The rooms of her apartment were uncluttered by the past. Nobody would have to plow through dusty boxes and cupboards full of rubbish for Jude.
She lay in her bed and thought of cathedrals. And she thought of animals: rats beneath the floorboards, cockroaches bristling behind the crossed ankles and bleeding feet of plaster Jesuses. She thought of dark, malevolent little birds; of the muffled small sounds of creatures dying in the spaces between bricks and plaster, between ceilings and roof beams. She thought of their shit drying out and turning hard, and what happened to their skin and fur and organs, rotting unconsecrated in roof cavities.
She would not go to church, obviously, for she was neither a fool nor a coward.
She would go instead to the butcher and the grocer and then the hardware store for the few remaining cleaning things, and she would drive without hurrying along the freeway to the coast, and this afternoon the others would arrive.
It was not a holiday, the three women had warned one another, but the warning was really for Adele, who would disappear at the first sign of work. Adele would be useless, but they couldn't leave her out.
It was only three days. Two, really, given that most of today would be filled with the shopping and driving and arriving. And on Boxing Day the other two would leave and Daniel would come. She watched the fan blade's smooth glide. She would be like this: unhurried, gliding calmly through the hours until Adele and Wendy left. She would not let the usual things get to her; they were all too old for that.
It occurred to her that one of them could be next to go. Funny how she'd not thought of that until this moment. She threw off the sheet in a clean white billow.
After her shower, though, while she was making the bed, already some little flecks of annoyance with Wendy began creeping in. It was like dipping a hand into a pocket and searching the seams with your fingers; there would always be some tiny irritant crumbs if she wanted to find them. Why, for example, had Wendy refused a lift, insisting on making the trip in that terrible shitbox of hers? Jude snapped the sheet, fending off the affront that would come if she let it, about Wendy's secretive refusal to explain. Jude's hospitality, not just in the long-gone restaurant days but in general terms, was well known. People said it about her, had always done so. She guarded her generosity even more as they all grew older and she saw other women become irrationally fearful about money and turn miserly. Pinching coins out of their purses in cafs, bargaining in charity shops. Holding out their hands for twenty cents' change. It was appalling. It was beneath them.
Yet now, as she folded hospital corners-her bulging disk threatened to twang, but she maneuvered carefully and eased around it-she considered the possibility that hidden within the compliments about her largesse might be needles of sarcasm. Once her sister-in-law had murmured, "It's not that generous if you have to keep mentioning it," and Jude had burned with silent rage. Burned and burned.
If she told Daniel about any of this, if she complained about Wendy and the car, he'd shake his head and tell her she had too much time on her hands.
She yanked another corner of the sheet.
If Sylvie were here, Jude could phone her and find out what the matter was with Wendy, and they could be exasperated together and then agree that it didn't matter, and Jude would be able to compose herself for when Wendy parked her filthy, battered car in the driveway at Bittoes, and she would be calm and welcoming and free of grievance. Now she would have to do it by herself.
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.
With other circles of friends, a death meant you were permitted to quietly go your separate ways. After the first shocks, the early ones in your forties and fifties-the accidents and suicides and freak diseases, the ones that orphaned children, shook the ground beneath cities-when you reached your seventies and the disintegration began in earnest, there was the understanding, never spoken, that the latest-the news of another stroke, a surprise death, a tumor or an Alzheimer's diagnosis-would not be the last. A certain amount of withdrawal was acceptable. Within reason you did what you must, to protect yourself. From what? Jude stood, looking down at the flat, white space of the bed. From all that . . . emotion. She turned and left the room.
It was true that time had gradually taken on a different cast. It didn't seem to go forward or backward now, but up and down. The past was striated through you, through your body, leaching into the present and the future. The striations were evident, these streaky layers of memory, of experience-but you were one being, you contained all of it. If you looked behind or ahead of you, all was emptiness.
When she'd told Daniel-crying bitterly, smoking-what Sylvie had said in the hospital about Wendy and Adele, he gazed at her with soft reproach and said, "But, Judo, of course you will, because you do love them. Because they're your dearest friends."
Daniel was quite sentimental, really. It could be oddly appealing in a man. Why was that, when in a woman it was so detestable?
She sat at the dining table to drink her coffee. It was 7:34. If she got to the grocer by 8:15, she might find a parking space quickly, and then she could be in and out of the butcher and then the hardware place, home, and packed, and on the road by 9:30. Ten latest. She reached for the notepad with the list, swished it toward herself.
People went on about how death brought people together, but it wasn't true. The graveyard, the stony dirt-that's what it was like now. The topsoil had blown away and left only bedrock. It was embarrassing, somehow, to pretend they could return to the softness that had once cushioned their dealings with one another. Despite the fact that the three women knew one another better than they did their own siblings, Sylvie's death had opened up strange caverns of distance between them.
She wrote: scourers.
And it had opened up great oceans of anger in Jude, which shocked her. Now when other people died, she found the mention of it offensive. It was Sylvie who had died, who was to be mourned. Other people's neighbors and sisters were of no relevance; why did people keep telling her about them? Even Daniel! Holding her hand in his one evening, telling her his cousin Roger had gone, a heart attack on a boat. Jude had waited for him to come to the point before realizing it was sympathy he wanted. From her. It was all she could do not to spit on the floor. She had to put a hand to her mouth, the force of her need to spit was so great. She wanted to shout, So what, Andrew died-of course he did! What did Daniel expect? Everybody died. But not Sylvie.
She looked at the list again. Adele had been at her about the pavlova. She knew it wasn't a holiday, but it's Christmas, Jude, it's a tradition. Adele had always been soppy about things like this. Though actors were sentimental, in Jude's experience; she supposed they had to be. They had to be able to believe in all sorts of things.
But the humidity would make a meringue collapse; it was going to be so wretchedly hot. They were all too fat anyway, especially Wendy. Christmas be damned, they could have fruit and yogurt. She put a line through eggs.
She had not spit on the floor, and she had not pulled her hand away from Daniel's, and she said she was sorry even though all she felt for his dead cousin was shame, that he might try to associate himself with what had happened to Sylvie.
She stopped, looked at her list. Don't be so hard on people, Jude. She added eggs again.