Posts Tagged Claire Messud

book review: The Burning Girl

burning girlThe Burning Girl by Claire Messud. W.W. Norton| September 2017| 247 pages | $25.95| ISBN: 978-0-393-63502-7

RATING: ****/5*

“You get to middle school, and you think about these things. The world opens up: history stretches behind you, and the future stretches before you, and you’re suddenly aware of the wild, unknowable interior lives of everyone around you, the realization that each and every person lives in an unspoken world as full and strange as your own, and that you can’t ever hope entirely to know anything, not even yourself.”

Writer Claire Messud adroitly explores themes such as friendship, what it means to be a woman, opportunity, choices, class, perception and artistic personalities with thoughtfulness and precision. The Emperor’s Children stunned me with its near perfection and it remains one of my favorite novels. I tore through her brilliant novel The Woman Upstairs. I realize now I need to read Messud’s back catalog. Messud’s known for writing what many consider unlikable characters. She excels at it. It’s the strength of a talented writer to write unlikable characters in a readable, magnificent and emotive manner. We may all possess unlikable qualities. Sometimes likeable characters are just too perfect, just too likeable to make for a satisfying read.

In this compelling novel with a realistic portrayal of female friendship in all its infatuation, moodiness and competitiveness, childhood friends Julia and Cassie fall out in high school, not surprisingly as we often change and need different things at different stages of our lives. Something terrible happens to Cassie. How much can one remember about our childhood friendships and what drew us to that person and what pushed us apart? Julia, the narrator of this novel, acknowledges that her memories might be murky way back when she and Cassie first met and “became friends in the second week of nursery school when we were four years old.” Julia recalls what drew the girls together and ultimately pushed them apart.

It’s rare the childhood friendship that carries into adulthood. Most of us evolve so much that those relationships fall to the side. This novel will make you reminisce about your childhood friendships. I’ve seen some childhood friends at high school reunions, while others I’ve lost forever, some for no reason then that we grew apart, we went in different directions as we developed into adults. It’s comforting to have this intelligent, masterful author write about these things because those were challenging times for many of us. Messud divided the novel into three sections. In the first section, the girls are children. This section’s influenced by fairy tales, Messud explains. In the second section, time passes and events have wider consequences as Julie and Cassie move into adulthood. In the third section, Julia and Cassie are “nominally into adulthood” and are both making up stories.

It doesn’t bode well for Cassie that she lives with only her mom Bev, a hospice nurse struggling to make ends meet. Messud writes: “It wasn’t hard for Cassie, who never confided in her mother. Bev Burnes wasn’t reliable; she was moody and weird in spite of her perma-smiles, and even if she seemed cool about something, it didn’t mean she’d stay cool with it, and weeks or even months later she would throw it back in Cassie’s face, or blab like it was nothing. Cassie had learned the hard way not to trust her mother.” Julia lives comfortably with two parents who earn enough money to allow Julia the comfort to not worry about daily necessities. Both work from home which means Julia always has her parents around for guidance, security, etc. Julia’s father is a dentist with an office in the (no longer used) stables on their property [“When he goes to work, he walks a hundred feet out the back door.”] and her mother “is a freelance journalist, a vagueness that seems to mean she can be a journalist when it suits her. She writes restaurant and movie reviews for the Essex County Gazette, and for the past few years she’s written a literary blog that has a following, including an adult English class in Tokyo that writes very polite comments.” Julia recalls: “Even when I was alone, I liked to know that I wasn’t really entirely alone; but that wasn’t how it was for Cassie.”

It seems clear that something will happen even if we aren’t already expecting it from the book jacket because these two girls are from such different family situations. When you’re young you can ignore those differences and how they may shape your future and your development. There’s this astute observation: “With someone you’ve always known and have loved without thinking, there’s the strangeness of knowing everything and nothing about them at the same time.” Julia’s the “good girl” and Cassie’s the “bad girl.” At least as literary characters. Cassie lives on the edge. She’s delving into everything and anything she can without hesitation and without considering any consequences for her action and behavior. Developing brains and all. It’s hard to be a teenage girl. Some girls want to grow up quickly. Some girls want to be more adult than they are. Some girls are more adult than their age. It happens. I had lots of friends who got fake IDs so they could drink before they turned 21, both in high school and in college. My brother got my friends the fake IDs. I had no desire to do so.

Messud, at a recent book reading, explained that as teenagers we have “a choice to opt out of the sexual economy.” Such a brilliant way to describe that phase when we hit puberty or start liking boys (or girls). Julia isn’t hurrying into sexuality as much as Cassie and that definitely separates them in junior high and high school.In high school, I had a group of friends who didn’t date or hook up with boys. Of course, this was a while ago, in the 80s. There were others who always seems to have boyfriends. Teens become sexually active even earlier these days. Julia focuses on her future outside of the town while Cassie focuses on her future outside her house and apart from her mom. This friendship won’t last once these girls become independent young women.

Claire Messud will be reading at The Brattle Theatre for Harvard Book Store tomorrow, September 5, 2017 at 6pm.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

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November Boston-area Book Readings of Note

the muralist

B.A. Shapiro
The Muralist
Concord Bookshop
Thursday, November 5 at 7pm

the horse

Wendy Williams
The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion
Harvard Book Store
Monday, November 9 at 7pm

japanese lover

Isabel Allende
The Japanese Lover
Harvard Book Store
Wednesday, November 11 at 7pm


Ethan Hawke
Rules for a Knight
Harvard Book Store
at Brattle Theatre
Thursday, November 12 at 6pm

extraordinary rendition

Claire Messud, Askold Melnyczuk, Adam Stumacher
Extraordinary Rendition
Brookline Booksmith
Monday, November 16 at 7pm

me my hair and i

Elizabeth Benedict
Elizabeth Searle
Hallie Ephron

Me, My Hair & I: Twenty-Seven Women Untangle an Obsession
Newtonville Books
Monday, November 16 at 7pm

Jesse Eisenberg
Bream Gives Me Hiccups
Harvard Book Store
at Brattle Theatre
Thursday, November 19 at 6pm


Hanya Yanagihara
A Little Life
Cambridge Public Library
Monday, November 30 at 7pm

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BOOKS: 25 Suggestions for #ReadWomen2014

As an English major at a women’s college (Simmons College in Boston), I didn’t read as many women authors as you’d think. I remember a Victorian Experience class with George Eliot as one of the authors along with Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, naturally. I took a wonderful summer course at Emerson College that included Edith Wharton on the syllabus and I immediately fell for her. Upon graduating I’ve made up for not reading that many female authors and likely read more female than male authors. As with any business, I know that the literary world’s filled with many more big-name male authors and lesser-known female authors. More literary prizes go to men than to women. Female authors usually get pushed into the “women’s fiction” a.k.a. “chick lit” genre whereas men nearly always write literary fiction, mystery/thriller and nonfiction. There’s little parity. So I’m all for this #ReadWomen2014 movement.

Here are 25 of my favorite books by women, a mix of classic and modern, if you need some reading suggestions:

Glimpses vintage

1. Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton

song of lark

2. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather


3. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

journal of a solitude

4. Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton


5. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers


6. Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker


7. The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud


8. Intuition by Allegra Goldman

ghana must go

9. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi


10. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

portrait in sepia

11. Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

good earth

12. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck


13. The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna


14. The Group by Mary McCarthy

bell jar

15. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


16. Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark


17. The Vagabond by Collette

education of harriet hatfield

18. The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton

agnes grey

19. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte


20. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver


21. Possession by A.S. Byatt


22. Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill


23. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

broken heart.singer

24. The Wholeness of a Broken Heart by Katie Singer

on beauty

25. On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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STEELE Picks: 20 Best Books of 2013

woman upstairs

1. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud [Knopf]
–a brilliant novel about anything but that typical woman upstairs. It’s about aspirations present and past, realized and forsaken.


2. The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna [Tin House Books]
–an intense book about squatting, community and political activism in the 90s

ghana must go

3. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi [Penguin]
–a beautifully written book. haunting and lyrical. family, race, country, belonging.


4. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward [Bloomsbury]
–this memoir. raw. upsetting. the author mediates on the poverty in Louisiana and the black men she lost in its depths.


5. Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat [Knopf]
–another novel in which I’m in awe of the writing style. gorgeous mystical tale about Haiti.


6. FEVER by Mary Beth Keane [Scribner]
-wondrous historical fiction about “Typhoid Mary.” fascinatingly imagined.

inbetween people

7. The Inbetween People by Emma McEvoy [The Permanent Press]
–stunning, powerful novel. Avi Goldberg writes from military prison because he refuses to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF]. He writes about his friend Saleem, an Israeli Arab he met. Their lives intertwine despite cultural differences and past troubles.

in the body of the world

8. In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler [Metropolitan]
–not only a memoir about Ensler’s personal journey with cancer but it’s a call to community, to get involved. so powerful I cried when I finished reading it.

valley of amazement

9. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan [ECCO]
–sweeping story about mothers and daughters set in turn-of-the-century Shanghai

Harvard Square

10. Harvard Square by Andre Aciman [W.W. Norton]
–melancholic, nostalgic autobiographical novel about belonging and assimilation that focuses on immigrants finding their place in America in the 70s.

sister mother husband dog

11. Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron [Blue Rider]
–the this essay collection, Delia tackles the profound to the superficial with wit, perception and charm. She maintains a steady wisdom-filled tone. She’s a woman who’s experienced plenty and shares mistakes, some secrets and reflects upon life-lessons with those willing to listen.

vampires in lemon grove

12. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell [Knopf]
–This collection of stories transports you to places you never imagined going to. Russell writes stories about variations on monsters. Beautiful, peculiar, unusual and tragic monsters. She creates bizarre, macabre and funny settings. Complete with vivid imagery, creepiness and potent emotions without an excess of verbiage. She writes dark, funny and tender.

freuds mistress

13. Freud’s Mistress by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack [Amy Einhorn]
–long rumored to have had an affair with his wife’s sister, Kaufman and Mack vividly imagine this sister’s character and life with the Freuds.


14. Montana by Gwen Florio [The Permanent Press]
–MONTANA drew me in immediately with its stellar page-turning plot, terrific characters and stunning descriptions of Montana scenery. Also Lola’s an independent feminist journalist determined to uncover the truth at any cost.

dirty love

15. Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III [WW Norton]– author interview
–one of my all-time favorite authors writes vignettes about love, sex, relationships and the gritty, sticky, messy aftermath.


16. Lillian and Dash by Sam Toperoff [Other Press]
–What a charming novel that delves into the long affair between playwright Lillian Hellman [Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour] and noir author and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett [The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man].

big brother

17. Big Brother by Lionel Shriver [Harper Collins]
–Lionel Shriver expresses so many thoughts about obesity epidemic, how we indulge, how food is a treat, a central focus for holidays, outings, dates, meetings etc. Dazzling writing, vocabulary and character creation up until the ending.

together tea

18. Together Tea by Marjan Kamali [ECCO]– author interview
–insight into the immigrant experience. Humor, love, respect and mother-daughter bonding make this a book you’ll long remember after finishing the last page. It’s a love story to Persia as well as an acceptance for the United States.

hypothetical girl

19. The Hypothetical Girl by Elizabeth Cohen [Other Press]– author interview
–in this astute story collection, Elizabeth Cohen writes about dating in the digital age.

nothing serious

20. Nothing Serious by Daniel Klein [The Permanent Press]
–brilliant meditation on print media and its changing format and relevance.

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The Woman Upstairs: book review

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Publisher: Knopf (April 30, 2013). Contemporary fiction. Hardcover. 272 pages. ISBN 978-0-307-59690-1
woman upstairs

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, straight-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying”

The Woman Upstairs is such a brilliant novel about anything but that typical woman upstairs. Women can relate to this woman at whatever stage of life we might be. We know her. We recognize aspects of her in us and in our aspirations present and past, realized and forsaken. She’s not really hiding or sulking or quiet. An elementary schoolteacher who truly wanted to be an artist, she just made more realistic choices in her life but continued to paint and practice her art on her own. She says of herself—“it explains so much about me, too, about the limits of my experience, about the fact the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world.”

Just because you don’t sell or show your art are you not an artist? How many creative people manage to become mega successful or make money from their talents? Usually someone has to have a day job or some sort of non-creative work to make a living and then do what one loves on her own time. If all works out well then she gets to do what she loves and make money from what she loves too.

Nora wanted romance and her own children but didn’t have them for one reason or another. She’s been doing the right things all along and now finds herself rage-fueled and frustrated and seeing in others what she wants for herself. She meets the Shahid family—a dreamy Euro-MiddleEastern blend of artistry and intellect– and falls hard for them. Reza is a student in her class, his mother Sirena, a talented artist. A working artist. One who exhibits her work in Paris and sells her art which people write about and discuss. They’re here for a year as Skandar, Sirena’s husband, teaches at Harvard.

While she might want to be Sirena and be with Skandar, she falls for each of them in different ways and perhaps wants to just infiltrate the family and be accepted by them and loved by them as she grows to love and depend on them. Sirena asks Nora to share a studio with her. No one may ever see Nora’s artwork as they’ll see Sirena’s grand Alice in Wonderland extravaganza.

Nora finds validation in this as she creates her miniature doll houses representing the inner lives of Virginia Woolf [“her last note propped upon the mantelpiece”], Alice Neel [“the sanatorium suicide ward . . . to make my Alice’s room reflect only the nadir, her darkest isolation, when she felt forsaken by life and by art and by love.”], Edie Sedgwick [“For Edie, beautiful Edie, the strangeness was that the joy was already in the room, even as it was killing her.”]. Emboldened one night she dresses as Edie Sedgwick, becomes Edie and goes out, gets terribly drunk, returns to the shared studio and enters Sirena’s Wonderland in a blissful daze. [“I was in my life, in life. I was alive.”]

“Or I imagined grandly showing Sirena my artwork in a fashionable Spartan gallery that had courted me, while craven young girls in black looked on, awed, from the sidelines. I knew even as I had them that these dreams were impure—after all, the whole point of the Shahids, for me, had been to escape a world of pretending, to be seen for who I really was—but I couldn’t help it: their natures, you could say, had corrupted me. My need for their approval, and my understanding of what approval meant to them—this had changed the shape of my self, even, let alone of my dreams.”

What’s enough for Nora? She wants an all-encompassing friendship with this family. Nora wants them to think about her and value her as much as she’s come to value them. But they don’t. She’s just an infinitesimal part of their dynamic international lives. When Nora discovers that she’s just another American that they’ll leave behind in several months it starts to corrode her soul. Years later the family still haunts her dreams. Angered by being abandoned, Nora plans a European trip around a visit to the Shahids in Paris. The near perfect ending will both shock and satisfy readers.

I first discovered Claire Messud with her engrossing novel The Emperor’s Children where three female friends navigate Manhattan while managing their complicated careers and relationships post-9/11. She’s a strong feminist voice and creates compelling characters. As with The Emperor’s Children, The Woman Upstairs drew me in from page one.

RATING: *****

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Knopf.

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