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Claire Messud
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Group Reads > September 2019: Claire Messud

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message 1: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Please use this thread to discuss anything you are choosing to read by our monthly author for September, Claire Messud. You can post reviews, or just snippets of thoughts, whenever suits you.

What will everyone be reading?

message 2: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Claire Messud is one of my favourite authors; I have loved everything of hers which I have read to date. Whilst I won't have chance to read anything else of Messud's during this month, I'm going to take the opportunity to post a couple of my reviews below.

message 3: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
The Woman Upstairs

I read Claire Messud's The Burning Girl whilst on holiday in Florida last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have been keen to read the rest of her oeuvre ever since, and picked up her fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, which was first published in 2013.

Lionel Shriver, an author whose work I very much admire, writes that 'Messud's prose is a delight... addictive, memorable, intense.' Of this novel, the Sunday Times reflects that protagonist Nora is 'a clear-eyed and fiercely self-critical narrator... It's beautiful, and it's moving, and it feels true.' The Economist declares that 'Rage and sorrow burn so fiercely off the pages of this novel... this is Nora's conversation with herself, as she spins on a "mental gerbil wheel", trying to comprehend a betrayal so foul it continues to unsettle long after the last page is turned.' The Guardian writes 'Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling'.

Nora Eldridge is the protagonist and narrator of The Woman Upstairs. She is a forty-two-year-old woman who says of herself: 'I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl, I'm a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody's boyfriend...'. She is a former third grade teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the reflections which she makes upon a pivotal meeting and subsequent friendship in her life, this is the position which she holds. Of her career, which she moves away from in the present day part of the story, she muses: '... and maybe I'll go back and do it again, I just don't know. Maybe, instead, I'll set the world on fire. I just might.'

It is when a young boy named Reza Shahid joins her class, whilst his academic father is undertaking a year at Harvard from his post at a Paris University, that things begin to change for Nora. 'It all started with the boy,' begins chapter two. 'With Reza. Even when I saw him last - for the last time ever - this summer, when he was and had been for years no longer the same, almost a young man, with the illogical proportions, the long nose, the pimples and cracking voice of incipient adulthood, I still saw in him the perfection that was. He glows in my mind's eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.' She goes on, in quite striking prose, to describe the spell which he soon casts over children and staff alike: 'Exceptional. Adaptable. Compassionate. Generous. So intelligent. So quick. So sweet. With such a sense of humor. What did any of our praise mean, but that we'd all fallen in love with him, a bit, and were dazzled?' Nora soon has the opportunity to meet Reza's parents, Skandar and Sirena, and soon becomes obsessed with the whole family.

I was immediately pulled in. Nora's narrative voice feels authentic from the first page, and she is a highly engaging narrator throughout, unusual in her viewpoints and outlooks. Messud uses language in markedly interesting ways, and she creates such depth in Nora. The Woman Upstairs is candid and darkly funny, with a realistic cast of flawed characters. Messud presents a brooding and memorable reflection upon friendship and family, and the things which we really need in life. By the end of this unpredictable and surprising novel, I felt that I knew Nora intimately. In every respect, The Woman Upstairs is a wonderful and powerful novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.

message 4: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
The Emperor's Children

After adoring Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books.  I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor's Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  The novel is set in New York in 2001, when 'the whole world shifts'.  In it, Messud explores 'how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.'

The Independent on Sunday calls Messud's 2006 novel 'a masterpiece', and The Times deems it 'thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing... [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language'.  The New York Times concurs, writing that 'Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without - showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.'  It is, promises its blurb, a novel which 'brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.'

The Emperor's Children focuses on four characters, three of whom - Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke - became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s.  They are 'young, bright New Yorkers living at America's beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century', and are joined.  The fourth character is Marina's socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie.  He is 'fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark' on the world.  His arrival causes the three other protagonists to 'confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.'  Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie. 

Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years.  In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the 'aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children... as a kind of displacement activity'.  He calls Julius a 'gay, sharp, bitchy, and... self-invented man'.  Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too.  Bootie has been used as 'one of the oldest tropes in storytelling', as 'a stranger who turns everyone's life upside down'.

Messud's character descriptions are wonderful.  When introducing Bootie's mother, for instance, she writes: 'she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau.  Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous.  Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor.  In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.'  

Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately.  Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self.  Of Marina, she writes: 'She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite  - or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.'  When discussing Julius, Messud notes: 'He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.'  Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud's protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.

A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably.  The Emperor's Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.

There is, as anyone familiar with Messud's writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor's Children.  Of this, Mukherjee writes: 'Messud's novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion - it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.'  He goes on to say: 'The questions it poses are enormous and profound.  What is a person's true, authentic self?  Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that?  What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith?  Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?'  Whilst Mukherjee's introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud's characters and plot points.

Before beginning The Emperor's Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page.  I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page.  Messud's writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles.  She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words.  I can see why some might think that Messud's prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing.  There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.

The Emperor's Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life.  Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn.  She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character.  As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel.  Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.

message 5: by Terry (new)

Terry | 50 comments Two fantastic reviews Kirsty! I look forward to reading something of this author's works this month.

message 6: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Thanks so much, Terry. I hope you enjoy her writing as much as I do.

message 7: by Terry (new)

Terry | 50 comments I've taken The Emperor's Children out of the library. I look forward to getting into it.

message 8: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
A fantastic choice! I'm looking forward to seeing how you get on with it.

message 9: by Terry (new)

Terry | 50 comments The Emperor's Children is about a group of young literati living in New York City at the turn of the last century. They came to NY in the early nineties, full of promise and ambition, now turning thirty they begin to question themselves and what they have done or not done in those years.

There are actually six important characters who are given about the equal emphasis. The three friends are Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke. Danielle is a struggling producer of documentaries, Marina is attempting to write a non fiction book, and Julius is a freelance book and film reviewer discovering that the loss of all those book pages in newspapers and magazines over the nineties makes it nearly impossible to make a living as a critic.

Each of these three begins to question their career paths, their place in the world, their identify and self worth. As they enter their thirties they realize they have not yet established themselves or their careers and have little to show for a decade's effort.

The blurbs name Frederick Tubb aka Bootie, as the newcomer who disrupts their lives, but he really only has an effect on the Thwaites. More affecting is the arrival of Ludovic Seeley, an Australian who plans to start a new magazine to conquer the NY City literary scene. His hostility to Murray Thwaite seems a little too intense, like someone who makes excuses for knocking off a giant just because they want to be the giant themselves. Or as Ludovic states it, "a God". Murray Thwaite is the Emperor of the title, and the children's story of the Emperor's clothes suggest that Ludovic's criticisms of Murray are at least partially justified.

But where Murray is self important so is Ludovic. Where Ludovic encourages Marina to distance herself from her father's influence, Ludovic wants to control her himself. It is left ambivalent whether Ludovic is a conniving villain using Marina, as Danielle believes, or merely ambitious. I feel that question is answered in a couple of passages near the book's end, but it is a question left for each reader to decide.

Julius has the least movement in terms of character of all of the three friends. Danielle has the most damaging crisis, a double blow to her career and her personal life that threaten her. Young Bootie is somewhere between a naive kid and a psychopath, as two characters judge him. He is easily disillusioned by his Uncle Murray and so attempts to destroy him, and in all his actions is unable to acknowledge the feelings of others or even to accept responsibility for the results of his actions.

The book has little plot, ending shortly after the events of 9/11/2001. The near entirely of it depicts the revolving relationships amoungst the characters and their rivalries and changing alliances and attempts to define their own lives and find purpose in the world, and to gauge how much if at all a person should accommodate one's own standards to the commercial and sometimes crass demands of society.

message 10: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
Great review, Terry! Did you have a favourite character?

message 11: by Terry (new)

Terry | 50 comments Thank you, Kirsty! You are very kind.
There are several characters I enjoyed, but Danielle has the edge as a favourite. She has the most breadth and depth of character. She is involved in most of the various plots and is a prime mover in several of them. I shouldn't go into details, I suppose, to avoid spoilers.
Her changing relationships with Ludovic and Marina are interesting and very well handled by Messud. She is Messud's most realized and inspired character, though there are others at close second. Her career dilemma is the most interesting, I think, and the added relationship issues and result which follows are the most effective as drama.
Plus, she is chosen by the author as the character to discover the big reveal near the end, surely a sign of the importance given her by Messud.

Do you have a favourite character?

message 12: by Kirsty (new)

Kirsty (kirstyonbooks) | 427 comments Mod
I completely agree with you about Danielle, particularly your comments about the depth she has as a character. She felt so realistic to me, and her interactions with others were so well drawn. I felt a lot of compassion for her.

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