Messud, Claire 1966–
Messud, Claire 1966–
Born 1966; married James Wood (a writer and literary critic); children: Livia, Lucian. Education: Attended Yale University and University of Cambridge, England.
Home—Somerville, MA. Office—Amherst College, Creative Writing Center, Webster 212, Amherst, MA 01004.
Writer and educator. Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC, instructor in writing; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, instructor in writing; Amherst College, Amherst, MA, visiting writer, 2000-02.
PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, 1996, for When the World Was Steady, and 2002, for The Hunters; Encore Award, 2000, for The Last Life; Guggenheim fellowship, 2002; Radcliffe Institute Fellow, 2004-05; Booker Prize longlist, 2006, for The Emperor's Children; Addison Metcalf Award and Strauss Living Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters; National Book Award nomination.
When the World Was Steady, Granta Books (New York, NY), 1994.
The Last Life, Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1999.
The Hunters, Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 2001.
The Emperor's Children (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including LA Weekly.
Claire Messud's first novel, When the World Was Steady, was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/ Faulkner Award. It follows the "quests for identity" of "two estranged sisters," according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. The sisters, "born only four years apart, represent temperamentally polarized generations," wrote Julia O'Faolain in the Times Literary Supplement. "The characters in When the World Was Steady fail to get what they want," observed James Marcus in the New York Times Book Review, "whether it be a new life, a half-decent God or a poetic death. Yet there's no doubt they'll carry on, living unhappily (but not too unhappily) ever after." Messud "weaves a beautiful, bittersweet story about the painful cost of self-knowledge and the unpredictability of life," concluded a contributor for Publishers Weekly.
Messud's second novel, The Last Life, "teems with the messy, inscrutable memories of the LaBasse family, and with a deep-seated neurosis that has parallels in the novel's other major theme, the relationship between France and its former colony Algeria," wrote Alex Clark in the Times Literary Supplement. The narrator is Sagesse—described by many of the book's reviewers as wise beyond her years—whose mother is American and father is Algerian. Her brother, Etienne, is severely handicapped. Her grandfather, Jacques, runs the family hotel in southern France, where the family resides and where Sagesse was reared. Early in the novel Jacques is put on trial for shooting at a group of teenagers skinny-dipping in the hotel pool.
"Messud rejects a linear narrative," noted Jay Parini in Nation, "moving back and forth in time." "Again and again, Sagesse returns imaginatively to Algeria, visiting vanished relatives, following her grandparents as newlyweds and then as young parents, always searching for explanations: how could what happened to her family before her birth produce what happens to them later?," wrote Suzanne Berne in the New York Times Book Review. Messud "perfectly captures a sense of otherness, of strangeness and of the compromised relationships of its speakers," Clark noted.
Sagesse is eventually sent to Boston to visit with her mother's sister and her family while her grandfather stands trial in France. While she knows much of her father's history, she knows little of her mother's and learns a lot during her time in America. She returns to her family in France following her grandfather's conviction and incarceration, only to journey back to America to attend college and graduate school and ultimately to stay. "America becomes, for Sagesse, ‘a home of a kind, without the crippling, warming embrace of history,’" Parini quoted from the book.
"Sagesse's story is a sad one," wrote Berne, "as stories of displacement usually are, and Messud is ambitious in her attempt to explore the colonial experience of Algeria through the prism of one family in the south of France." "The theme of exile … is implicit everywhere in a sense of longing for a homeland that doesn't quite exist, neither in the buried past nor in some glittering, projected future," observed Parini. "Questions of morality and mortality, of choice or fate or historical destiny, permeate the chronicle, adding coherence to a moving and insightful story," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The Last Life "is a thoughtful, beautifully written novel with well-developed characters and psychological insights," wrote Ann Irvine in the Library Journal. "This is a quietly powerful book that needs to be read in silence," stated a reviewer in the Economist.
The Hunters consists of two novellas, "A Simple Tale" and the title story, "The Hunters." A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked on the contents of The Hunters: "These two short novels have nothing in common except for providing the pleasure of seeing a writer of enormous skill and stylistic grace excel in crafting two very different fictions."
"A Simple Tale," the first story in the book, "recounts in luminous, clear-eyed prose the story of a cleaning woman named Maria Poniatowski," noted Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. In the present day of the story, Maria works for Mrs. Ellington, an elderly lady who serves as both employer and confidante. When age and infirmity make it necessary for Mrs. Ellington to enter a nursing home, Maria, herself aged in her seventies, reflects on the course of her life and the circumstances that led her to her current situation. Though she has long made a living with the discipline and order of cleaning, Maria's earlier days were not so tidily and benignly circumscribed by the routines of work and domesticity. As a teenager in the 1930s, she was forced from her home in Ukraine and confined to Nazi concentration camps. Separated from her family, she survived the deprivation and harsh conditions of her everyday life. In a daring move, Maria escaped from the camp along with another inmate, finding refuge with a farmer and his family. Later, she became a resident of a refugee camp, where the conditions were marginally better but where, she realized, she was still very much a prisoner. In the refugee camp, she met Lev, the man who will become her husband. In due time, the two become parents of a son. At the end of the war, eager to embark on a new life and apply their efforts to improving their family's condition, they decide to move to America but end up in rural Ontario, Canada, instead. There, they live in a drafty shack while they carry out their period of service in repayment to the Canadian government. They persevere and build a successful life for themselves, eventually moving to Toronto where Maria started her career in domestic work.
Maria's son, Radek, changes his name to the more Americanized Roddy, in an attempt to distance himself from his background. He marries an unpleasant German woman, Anita, much to Maria's displeasure, and fathers two children. Raised in a suburban North American atmosphere, Roddy adapts to a lifestyle that his mother can barely understand, constantly growing further and further away from her. Medical catastrophe strikes the family when Lev is diagnosed with lung cancer and dies six weeks later. With her husband's death, Maria's world freezes; she loses the ability to sustain herself and move forward that enabled her to survive the horrors of war and its aftermath. She covers the floors and furniture with plastic sheets, attempting to stop time and preserve the world that she and Lev created for themselves. Soon the stifling, mausoleum-like effect of her circumscribed world begins to have debilitating effects on Maria, and the distance between herself and her son grows. "It is only when she believes everything is at an end that Maria is able to connect with her son in a way that she has never allowed herself. Then, she removes the plastic layers from her furniture and emerges from her cocoon," noted a reviewer in the Economist.
"Compact yet compelling, Messud's novellas leave you wanting more," remarked Carol Haggas in Booklist. Linda Simon, writing in World and I, called "A Simple Tale" a "moving novella, beautifully and economically told." Miranda Seymour, assessing the book in the New York Times Book Review, named it a "marvelously subtle and poignant work, richly visualized, intensely written, compassionate without a hint of sentimentality." Spectator reviewer John de Falbe commented that "A Simple Tale" is "so fluid, profound, skillful and true that it does not feel quite so silly, after all, to describe it as perfect." In her final evaluation of the story, Seymour concluded, simply, that "A Simple Tale" is "exceptional, a work of near-miraculous perfection."
"The Hunters," the book's second novella, "showcases Messud's talent for language and wicked sense of humor," commented a reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly. The narrator of the story is an unnamed academic of indeterminate gender, temporarily living in London while researching a bleak project on death. The narrator rents an apartment in a run-down house in a dreary section of London. Afflicted with anxiety, depression, and other emotional troubles, the narrator lives a mundane, routine, almost mechanized existence. But the presence of the downstairs neighbors becomes a powerful disturbance in the narrator's life. Ridley Wandor, the neighbor's daughter, is an unattractive and unpleasant woman who works as a home health aide for elderly persons. In the narrator's tortured imagination, Ridley becomes a murderer, killing her frail and ailing patients with abandon. The narrator also worries about Ridley's mother, who helps the woman raise rabbits and who, the narrator fears, may be either dead already or in as much danger as Ridley's patients. To the narrator, Ridley is little more than a monster, an image bolstered by her repulsive appearance and manners. However, as the story progresses, the narrator undergoes a personal transformation that results in a reconsideration of Ridley's story, casting the unfortunate woman as more of a victim than a victimizer. Newfound sympathy and empathy allows the narrator to reconsider some previously held beliefs. "Although this tale lacks the depth and emotional chiaroscuro of the author's other fictions, it remains a masterly exercise in craft—alarming, suspenseful and unexpected all at once—and along with ‘A Simple Tale,’ it should burnish Ms. Messud's already estimable reputation," concluded Kakutani.
The Emperor's Children offers "a stinging portrait of life among Manhattan's junior glitterati," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic. The story revolves around a trio of friends from Brown University whose lives have not lived up to the dreams they had for themselves while in college. Julius Clarke is a freelance writer and critic who has to work temporary jobs to make ends meet. Danielle Minkoff works in television news and desperately wishes to become a producer of significant programs, but is stuck producing trivial fluff pieces of filler journalism. Marina Thwaite is trying to write a book on children's clothing she contracted for years prior, the advance long since spent. Worse, she has had to move back in with her parents after the breakup of her marriage. Marina is the beautiful child of prominent writer, social activist, and journalist Murray Thwaite, a high-ranking figure in New York literary and intellectual circles. Two new arrivals in their midst jolt the self-absorbed world occupied by these characters. The first, Ludovic Seeley, an Australian editor, arrives in New York, well-funded and with the mandate to start a new magazine geared toward deflating the overstuffed egos of the city's elite. The second newcomer is Murray's nephew Bootie Tubb, a nineteen-year-old college dropout who comes to New York, seeking advice from his uncle and mentoring in how to be an intellectual. Soon, Seeley is after Marina in an attempt to get access to Murray and other members of the social elite, and Bootie has seen behind the facade of the New York elite to the unflattering reality behind Murray Thwaite and others like him. In the background, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, loom with their devastating impact on the lives of the characters and America as a whole. It remains unclear, however, if even that profound tragedy will break through the characters' self-absorption.
Messud "deftly paints the neurotic uncertainties of people who know they're privileged and feel sorry for themselves anyway," observed a Kirkus Reviews critic. She "remains wickedly observant of pretensions—intellectual, sexual, class, and gender," commented a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. In the book, noted Booklist reviewer Carol Haggas, "tangy dialogue, provocative asides, glittering imagery, and nimble postulations build toward an electrifying and edifying conclusion." Karen Heller, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, remarked favorably on Messud's use of language, concluding that Messud's "agility with language displays an elegant maturity, almost 19th-century in its complexity, that is rare in contemporary fiction. It may be too rich for some tastes, but the voice and hand are authentic, and she never once loses her way in this glorious work."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, July-August, 2001, review of The Hunters, p. 161.
Booklist, August, 2001, Carol Haggas, review of The Hunters, p. 2089; August 1, 2006, Carol Haggas, review of The Emperor's Children, p. 42.
Economist, June 26, 1999, "New American Fiction 2," p. 98; September 8, 2001, "Big, Gold, Bare, and Spare: Autumn Fiction," review of The Hunters; August 19, 2006, "Window on the World: New Fiction," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 69.
Entertainment Weekly, September 1, 2006, Gilbert Cruz, review of The Emperor's Children, p. 83.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2006, review of The Emperor's Children, p. 596.
LA Weekly, August 23, 2006, Michelle Huneven, "A Full Life," interview with Claire Messud.
Library Journal, August, 1999, Ann Irvine, review of The Last Life, p. 141; April 15, 2001, Robin Nesbitt, review of The Hunters, p. 135; June 1, 2006, Robin Nesbitt, review of The Emperor's Children, p. 108.
Nation, October 18, 1999, Jay Parini, "Les Etrangers," p. 25.
National Review, December 18, 2006, David Klinghoffer, "Before the Fall," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 49.
New Statesman, February 25, 2002, Amanda Craig, review of The Hunters, p. 55; October 2, 2006, Stephen Amidon, "All that Glitters," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 58.
New York Times, August 14, 2001, Michiko Kakutani, "Powerless against Obsessions and the Burden of the Past," review of The Hunters, p. B6.
New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1995, James Marcus, "Unhappily Ever After," p. 23; September 12, 1999, Suzanne Berne, "The Algerian Connection," p. 11; August 19, 2001, Miranda Seymour, "When to Let Go: In the First of These Novellas, a Woman Who won't Forgive is Doomed not to Forget," review of The Hunters, p. 8; August 26, 2001, review of The Hunters, p. 22; September 2, 2001, review of The Hunters, p. 18; September 9, 2001, review of The Hunters, p. 20; August 25, 2002, Scott Veale, review of The Hunters, p. 24; August 27, 2006, "The End of Irony," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 1; August 27, 2005, review of The Emperor's Children, p. 4; December 3, 2006, "100 Notable Books of the Year," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 14; December 10, 2006, "The Ten Best Books of 2006," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 11.
People, September 11, 2006, "Books," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 55.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2006, Karen Heller, review of The Emperor's Children.
Publishers Weekly, June 12, 1995, review of When the World Was Steady, p. 44; July 12, 1999, review of The Last Life, p. 74; June 25, 2001, review of The Hunters, p. 44; May 8, 2006, review of The Emperor's Children, p. 43; August 7, 2006, Sybil Steinberg, "Discerning Displacement: A Sense of Dislocation and Exile Is Central to Claire Messud's Fiction; Most of Her Characters Are Emotionally and Culturally Alienated," profile of Claire Messud, p. 25.
Spectator, March 2, 2002, John de Falbe, "Books: Small, but Perfectly Formed," review of The Hunters, p. 36; September 9, 2006, Jane Gardam, "Thoughts, Words, and Deeds," review of The Emperor's Children.
Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 1994, Julia O'Faolain, "Lost in Life," p. 20; August 27, 1999, Alex Clark, "Algeria, Arcadia," p. 24.
Village Voice, August 4, 2006, Sara Eckel, "This Book Could Be Your Life: Voice Lit Critic Stars in Novel," review of The Emperor's Children.
Vogue, September, 2006, Taylor Antrim, "The Age of Innocence; Claire Messud's New Novel Is a Wry Look at Ambitious Young New Yorkers," review of The Emperor's Children, p. 572.
World and I, February, 2002, Linda Simon, "The Haunted—Claire Messud Explores Memory, Displacement, and Reinvention in Two New Novellas," review of The Hunters, p. 264.