The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend by Australian author Charlotte Wood is described as many things on the back of the book in blurbs, but I’m not so sure about those. Basically, four women in their 70s claim they are friends, though little evidence of friendship exists. When Sylvie dies, her beach house is left full of things that Sylvia’s partner Gayle decides she can’t (or won’t?) take care of. Thus, the remaining three friends, Jude, Wendy, and Adele, are called to meet at the beach house Christmas weekend to clean the place out so it’s ready for sale.

Unfortunately, the characters are stereotypes: the bossy one, the messy one, the dramatic one. But because Wood holds information back, my perceptions of them had to change in an odd way that made me wonder why major aspects of a character were withheld. For instance, Wendy seems like a classic lonely hoarder. Her car is an unreliable junker, her dog is a 17-year-old stinky, nervous creature that would do better put down. But then, nearly 50% in, we learn she’s a famous academic with loads of money. After Wood reveals this information, suddenly Wendy is constantly thinking like an academic, drafting thesis statements in her head and growing excited by research opportunities. Thus, Wendy reads unevenly.

Not only are the characters inconsistent, they don’t interact much, especially for friends. For instance, Wood has Wendy, Jude, and Adele go out to a restaurant, but instead of the friends talking, Wood chooses to have Jude think about the past. Therefore, we miss any interactions they have that would give the book more plot instead of internal meandering. Readers don’t often get the present moment. Jude, Adele, and Wendy don’t have conversations beyond “The dog stinks, keep him outside.” Jude does not express her reasons for hating Wendy’s dog, but she thinks it:

It was detestable that Wendy should drag the poor creature everywhere with her like some kind of rotting security blanket.

Is it possible the reader becomes a friend, a complaint bucket, for the characters? I can’t interact back. Since the characters rarely talk to each other, Wood fishes up some other plot points, such as Jude thinking she sees dead Sylvia’s face is in the dog‘s and Adele running into a rival actress and inviting her over to visit, which the actress does, but then leaves without redirecting the plot.

Because The Weekend is so internal, the characters seem like a list of characteristics, not people. Jude’s never been married, Jude is has had a married lover for forty years, Jude is controlling, Jude likes cooking, Jude worked in a restaurant, Jude has no children. Adele was a famous stage actress. Adele has a “pert bum.” Adele is flexible. Adele hates manual labor. Adele loves pavlova. Etc.

Even though the “friends” have been given permission to take anything of Sylvie’s that they wish, none verbally reminisce or recall memories of Sylvie or share . . . well, anything really, of their years of knowing each other. Sylvie could have been replaced with dozens of other motives to bring these three women together, but I wondered what Wood wanted to say with these characters, characters who are so distant in the same beach house, the same pages. I read The Weekend with Biscuit, who said that if she were reading this book on the back of a motorcycle, she would have thrown it in a ditch. No littering, Biscuit! But I get the sentiment, unfortunately.

44 comments

  1. It’s a year and a bit since I read this so I went back an re-read my review. Our conclusions are the same though yours are expressed more clearly. Here’s my last couple of lines: “The late Sylvie, whose absence might have been expected to be the centre of the novel, barley makes a showing. The friendship, having lasted this long only through inertia, would seem to have nowhere to go.”
    This was a very popular novel in Australia and I was roundly attacked for not seeing that it told truths about women’s friendship. (I do think friends don’t always like each other). My problem was that Wood’s previous novel, The Natural Way of Things, was original, slightly dystopian, and fiercely feminist. And The Weekend wasn’t.

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    • It DOES seem like we can to the same conclusion, and ultimately, I can away wondering what the point of the book was. I didn’t feel much, I didn’t empathize or learn a new perspective…. it just seemed like an awfully sloppy book. Now, to compare, I did just finish It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan, which is about 5 African American women who are approaching 70, and their friendship seemed pretty awful too. Now, I’m starting to wonder if people just shouldn’t keep the same friends for 50 years. Then again, it’s also hard to compare because Wood’s characters barely interact, where as McMillan’s characters have dinner together, call, exercise together, etc.

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  2. I’m one of the people that loved it (I won’t bore you with the reasons because I won’t convince you otherwise), however, I did think the inclusion of Finn, the dog, was an interesting reflection on ageing and attitudes toward ageing (what do I conclude from your statement that Finn should be put down?!).

    I also enjoyed the portrayal of friendship (agree that there was little interaction between the characters). I was interested in the idea that long friendships can cement us into certain roles – are we a different person outside that friendship group? In terms of these characters, it would seem the answer is yes. I have several old friendship groups (20+ years), and this book certainly gave me lots to think about.

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    • I do think Finn should be put down, not because he is old and peeing on things, but because Wood made it sound like he was suffering, too. I also believe that people have the right to choose humane euthanasia, though it is not legal in most of the U.S.

      Did you write a review of this book? Link it for me; I’d love to read it! I like the concept of this book, but I don’t think Wood chose the right point of view or secondary characters.

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      • Here’s my review: https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.com/2020/04/06/the-weekend-by-charlotte-wood/

        We have voluntary assisted dying in the state where I live. To the average* person on the street, it seems ‘straightforward’ but the ethical and legal process to actually end your life because of medical suffering is complex and not always ‘gentle’ as some believe (like all creatures, we are built to strive for life). Most significantly, people with dementia – which is of course a terminal illness – are excluded from voluntary assisted dying. And, if you’ve known anyone who has lived with dementia, you’ll know that it is the cruelest of diseases.

        *I work in palliative care and with with people caring for someone, so reckon that my understanding of assisted dying is probably more in depth than the average person!

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        • Your review was absolutely lovely, and I read through all of the comments, too. I especially liked the part where you wrote, “In older age, are we still open and flexible, the things friendship requires?” I think that’s a great question. I wish I had seen the characters come together earlier in the book, maybe have the break down soon and then watch them talk about the kind of people they are and how friendships after 40 years is hard. Something more human on the outside and less internal.

          Your note about working palliative care makes me feel like I was cruel and dismissive of folks who are suffering or wish for assisted suicide (euthanasia? I’m not sure what the correct term is). I’m so sorry if I sounded that way. I have watched a grandmother and a good friend deteriorate from dementia. My best friend’s father was just diagnosed with it. I also watched a grandfather slowly die with cancer. None of it is easy, ever. Thank you so much for sharing with me, Kate.

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          • Rest assured I didn’t perceive your comment as cruel or dismissive!

            As you have said, end-of-life is never easy, and we don’t know how we will manage it for ourselves (or those close to us) until we’re faced with it. Often people imagine they would choose assisted dying because there’s an underlying fear of physical pain associated with death (good palliative care eases or removes that pain). But assisted dying can come with a different kind of pain (emotional, particularly for family and friends).

            I certainly believe people should have the choice. I struggle with the fact that the choice isn’t ‘equitable’ in that people with certain conditions, such as dementia, are excluded.

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            • I read a Canadian graphic memoir about a woman’s experience with her mother, who got dementia, but denied it for so long that by the time the father had to admit that she wasn’t acting like herself, she was pretty far into the disease. It was a tough graphic novel, but I remember distinctly the part about the author being upset that her mother denied something was going on because a family friend also found out she had dimention early enough to make the decision to get in her car in the garage and start the engine with the door closed. Yeesh. I wasn’t sure if the author was suggesting that’s what she had hoped her mother had been able to do? I recall this memoir because it seems like there are zero easy conversations about death and dying, but what you said about palliative care does reassure me and make me feel better. You may like the collection The Gifts of the Body: https://grabthelapels.com/2018/11/21/the-gifts-of-the-body/

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  3. I like the idea of a novel that centres a group of older female friends so it’s a shame to hear the characters are so stereotypical. (This seems to be a particular problem with portrayals of older people).

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    • Even in Terry McMillan’s new novel, It’s Not All Downhill from Here, the five friends nearing 70 weren’t fully drawn out, and it was hard to see why they were friends, too. I want to read more books about older women and friendships, but a good plot has to be at the center of it, too.

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  4. I’m with Kate, I liked this book. Yes, the characters are types, but I felt they were real too. I did wonder whether they were really friends, because of all the ways they irritated each other, but my reading group felt they were, and I felt they had a point because when it came to the crunch they supported each other.

    I think readers need to see the important role of Finn in all this. This is a book about women in their seventies and confronting ageing. Finn symbolises that – how each react to Finn helps explain their own lives, values and attitudes, particularly regarding their own ageing. It’s not Wood’s best book by any means, but I thought it had something to offer.

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    • I wish I had seen more clearly the friends supporting. I’ve never read a book before in which we don’t read on the page characters interacting with each other.

      I did like the way Wood really seems to test our patience with Finn, which I agree is a good indication of the ways in which we think about feel about elderly people.

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      • Interesting how differently we read books … your point about reading about characters interacting with each other is interesting. I don’t recollect feeling that was new to me but I’ll have to think!

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        • I didn’t realize it as I was reading, but then, as I tried to figure out what I really didn’t like about this book, it was the lack of interactions. It surprised me! Even when they go to dinner and have that rude interaction with the actress and director, they sit down, start to order, and we immediately shift to one of their heads (Jude) and don’t leave. What happened at dinner?? That’s all I could think about.

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  5. A trope I really dislike in books is friends who don’t actually seem to be friends – I always end up just feeling sorry for the author for not having happier experiences to draw from! Interesting to see that some in the comments loved this and some did not at all.

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    • I’m not sure how much this would affect authors who are older and were not shaped in their formative years by Facebook, but I also know the definition of “friend” has changed. These characters felt more like Facebook friends that caring, supportive friends (actually I can remember very little of any of them supporting each other).

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  6. BAHAHAA I love Biscuit’s way of assessing books; would i throw this in the ditch? I need to remember that.

    Sounds like a dud, which is a shame, because a few old ladies in a beach house sounds right my up alley!

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  7. Does Biscuit often read books on motorcycles? 😆

    I have this on my TBR but your review is making me rethink that. I don’t like that there isn’t much interaction between the friends as that was one of the things that drew me to the book.

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    • Yeah, I thought this novel would have some insight into what friendship looks like when a woman is in her 70s, but all they did was pick at each other in their minds.

      Biscuit reads quite a lot on motorcycles. She has her own, but when she and my dad go on vacation, they’ll put his motorcycle in a trailer and drive down to Arizona or New Mexico, get a B&B, and ride around on his motorcycle. They used to ride separately, but a couple of scary incidences have put that to bed. When I lived with my parents, I used to read on the back of a motorcycle, too. I would have a fanny pack with a mass-market paperback (size is important) and read. With a smaller size book, you can hold the entire thing in your hands so the pages don’t flappety-flap about.

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  8. I have read a few not so brilliant reviews of this although I can’t remember where of course. The dog would put me off as I’d be worrying about him dying the whole time, but also suffering. Not one for me. There were some good books on older women, incl their friendships, published by Transita Press about 10 years ago – no longer going, unfortunately as it was such a good concept.

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    • I read an interconnected collection of short stories several years ago, and this was the first time I’d read about elderly folks engaging in sex. I think we need loads more fiction about what older folks are up to, because we’re all likely to get there. We don’t seem to know what to expect other than a general sense of elderly people as gross, doddering, senile, need to sit in a recliner, etc. All the mean stuff.

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      • Oh dear … you haven’t been around as many elderly people as I have! I had nonagenarians/centenarians in my life from 2004 until this January, and I can tell you that none were doddering or senile, though as they became frailer they did sit more. My centenarian father never sat in his recliner after about the age of 80. My “elderly” people were engaged in life, in their family etc. On the day he died my 100-year-old father asked questions about the world.

        BTW What is your definition of “elderly”? This is a question that bothers me quite a bit because the media throws it around with wild abandon for all sorts of ages and levels of competence!

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          • Haha Bill … my definition is a bit more (to use current cliche) nuanced. I accept that I’m old middle age now (or, maybe young old age?), but I see elderly as being defined more functionally. I think you are “elderly” when you need significant help to do the things you need to do. If you are 80 and still functioning effectively (feeding yourself; getting yourself around, engaging in life like family, society, activities you like; managing your health needs yourself, etc) even if not doing all the things you did when you were young, you are just old. I think you are elderly when you need help to do those things – you can’t drive or get on public transport yourself, you can’t organise your own shopping (and by organising I allow ordering delivered groceries as managing yourself) or you meals, you can’t manage your own medications, you are physically unable to do the basic things like bath yourself – then you are elderly. That’s my definition and I’m sticking to it. Most of the old people I know were getting to that stage around 85 to 90. They still had their marbles but they did start to need help because of various frailties. For example, it’s one thing to “want” a cleaner for your house, but another thing to “need” it!

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            • Ahhhh, see I think of elderly as more of an age range than whether the person needs help. Otherwise, folks with degenerative disabilities of any age might fit into your definition.

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              • Though, to be fair, when I say a young person, that typically is based on what they’re doing instead of age. I started teaching my own college classes at age 23 and did not consider myself “young.” But I know folks creeping up on 30 who seem like they can’t get it together, and I would think of them as “young.”

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              • Staircase Wit’s Six degrees resulted in my reading about William Beebe in Wikipedia, where I read this:

                “Beebe remained active well into his old age. In 1957, at the age of eighty, he was still capable of climbing slippery tree trunks to study bird nests.”

                I find it hard to call that elderly – just old! But this is probably just me!

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        • I think of elderly as 70+ myself. I don’t know any doddering elderly folks personally, but I know the media wants us to feel that way. My Grandma Glady will be 80 on July 4th and can’t wait to get vaccinated so she can ride her bicycle around Mackinaw Island. My Grandma Mavelyn loves shopping, travel, and will try to do everything herself, much to my brother’s chagrin, who has seen her nearly fall off a ladder up to her gutters and was practically dragged by a rototiller a couple of summers ago. My own mom, Biscuit, is 61, and I do not think of or refer to her as elderly.

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          • Thanks Melanie. Ask Biscuit what she thinks is elderly. I think most of us in our healthy 60s don’t see 70 as elderly and I don’t think most 70 year olds feel that way either. Not these days anyhow?

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  9. Ah, sorry to see this one didn’t live up to expectations, it’s always so exciting to find a good platonic friendship in a book! At first when you mentioned one of the characters presenting as a lonely hoarder and then later being revealed as a famous academic, I thought, that kind of characterization upturning assumptions could be used to great effect. But when it changes the way the character is presented entirely rather than incorporating a new element smoothly, and when it doesn’t necessarily seem to have a point, that does sound disappointing. I do love the mental image of Biscuit tossing a bad book off a motorcycle, though! 🙂 I hope the two of you will have better luck with your next buddy read.

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    • Readers don’t need to know everything about a character at once, but their personality must always live within the scope of who they are as designed by the writer. They can’t just change suddenly. Furthermore, I didn’t see the point of this reveal. It wasn’t dramatic or meaningful; it was like Wood suddenly remembered, “Oh, yeah. Wendy is writing a scholarly book. She should probably think about that sometime.”

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      • Exactly! Even if specific character details are withheld, their personality should definitely be consistent so that the new info feels like a clarification on what’s already there, not an entire character shift.

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  10. After reading your review and then all the comments, I don’t know what to think about this book! I read The Natural Way of Things last year so thought it might be interesting to read this one, too, which seems to be completely different. I might have to reassess my plan!

    My two cents worth on old friends… 1) I wonder if little interaction is actually evidence that the women are so close that they don’t always need to be interacting with each other. But that probably depends how much they tend to see each other outside of this particular weekend. 2) I’ve had conversations with a couple of close friends- one an old friend (over 30 years) and one newer (around 10) -and we all agreed that there are friends who we consider good friends and friends who we are only friends with because we were friends with them in the past. Maybe this group of women have outgrown their friendship, but feel loyal to it anyway because of how long they’ve known each other?

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    • I always wonder at what point we go from friend to acquaintance. It’s strange to think my best friend from high school is an acquaintance, but we really are, at this point. If I lose touch with someone for too long, even though there have been many opportunities for us to reconnect, I don’t call that friendship anymore. The characters in The Weekend can’t stand each other. I mean, yes, they had a past together, but that doesn’t mean they have a present. Sometimes I wonder if folks hold on to the notion of a friendship because nothing serious caused it’s end, but it did end.

      Currently, I’m listening to an audiobook about older folks who hang out together: The Thursday Murder Club. So far, that one is going much better and still telling me about older folks. I also loved how the short story collection An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good really played with the idea that old people are doddering, which this elderly lady uses to her advantage.

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      • I often think about that in terms of couples. It’s strange to think people can be so close (as close as you can get) and then a few years later not even speaking any more. Great Big Sea has a song about it: “How do we get from saying I love you to I’ll see you ’round someday?”

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