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The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

Paperback 2021, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (first published in Australia 2019, Allen & Unwin)

This was a well-timed read in that it’s set over Christmas, although Christmas in Sydney, so it didn’t necessarily promise to be a good match for a cold night by the fire. The themes, however, were all-engrossing. The Weekend proved not only to be a page-turner, but a prompt to reflect on some deep themes pertinent to all of our lives.

The story centres on three women in their seventies who have been friends for 40 years: Adele, who was once a moderately well-known actor in Australia; Wendy, a writer and academic now past her peak; and Jude, previously a respected maître-d’ at a well-known restaurant but for years a “kept woman”, with an apartment and luxurious lifestyle paid for by her married lover.

The fourth member of their friendship group, Sylvie, has passed away, and the others are spending Christmas clearing out her beach house in Bittoes, a quaint coastal town on the Gold Coast which is rapidly being taken over by second-homers.

The dynamic of the friendship group is set out early on: Jude is the organiser, with little patience for tardiness or mess; Wendy is the inverse of this, becoming shambolic in her old age, and doting on her ancient dog, Finn, who the vet advised should have been put down years ago (the dog repulses Jude, who won’t have him in the house); and Adele is scatty, artistic and obsessed with exercise, determined not to let her looks go.

Over the course of the weekend, we witness the tensions of the group play out, and inevitably secrets from the past are outed.

This book is remarkable for its treatment of two key themes: ageing and friendship. Older characters in novels – as in life – are usually lumped together in the “old” category, stereotyped in certain way. But we’re all (hopefully) going to get old, and there are as many ways of ageing as there are individuals, which comes across loudly and clearly here. So above all, it’s important to say that you don’t need to be a woman in her seventies to read this novel. Its messages are relevant to all of us.

Desperate to hold onto her youth, when she’s not working out Adele dreams of a final swansong on the stage. She spent her early years in pursuit of fame which didn’t materialise on the scale she’d hoped for and she has neglected to save any money, so when her recent relationship (with a woman whereas she’s previously been with men, negating the stereotypes of old age) breaks up, she’s on the verge of destitution.

Jude has spent her life enjoying the lifestyle provided by her lover, but for years it seems to have revolved around when she can see him next, everything else except her friendships having fallen away. And yet the novel suggests that there’s nothing unusual about being a professional mistress in your seventies.

Wendy was once a respected writer and intellectual, educated at Oxford and having spent time in New York. In terms of the ageing process, she’s probably the most conventional – a process that she’s sharing with Finn the dog – but it turns out that an aspect of her past isn’t exactly as she thought it was.

When I was in my twenties, I thought of middle age as a blob with defined characteristics; but now I’m there, with the exception of added wisdom and experience, I don’t feel a lot different to when I was twenty-five.

I guess the point is that we never actually feel different at any age; fundamentally, we’re the same person and more importantly, we’re an individual in our own right. The amorphous blobs of “middle” or “old” age disperse once they are reached. We go on being who we always were. The Weekend makes this point brilliantly and reassuringly.

The novel’s examination of the notion of friendship is also pertinent. To quote:

“Why did they still come together, these three? … They came because of duty … Because what was friendship, after forty years? … it was a mystery. It was immutable, a force as deep and inevitable as the vibration of the ocean coming to her through the sand. Wasn’t it? She didn’t know.”

Humans are tribal animals, and the notion of the entrenched friendship group has taken hold since around the mid-twentieth century, coinciding with individuals spreading their wings, self-actualising and thus focusing away from family groups. The concept has been examined in popular culture from the 1990s onwards, exemplified by Friends and Sex and the City.

Jude, Adele and Wendy have been friends since their thirties, and they get on each others’ nerves as much as they support each other. Is there value in doggedly maintaining the same group when lives diverge, or should we move on? Discuss.

All in all, a thought-provoking, heartwarming read which tackles big themes with nuance.

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