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by Claire Messud

Pub Date: May 14th, 2024
ISBN: 9780393635041
Publisher: Norton

A family rides the waves of current events and personal conflicts across three generations.

Readers of Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write (2020) will recognize the autobiographical elements in Messud’s novel, but they are less important than the compelling way she has reinvented her family as fully fleshed fictional characters. Gaston and Lucienne Cassare, a French Algerian couple uprooted first by World War II and then by Algerian independence, embody for their son, François, and daughter, Denise, a loving companionship so total that both children will spend their lives looking for its equal. Denise, whose personal attachments rarely work out, clings to her parents’ devout Catholicism; François might have made a home in America—“its energy, its freedom, its carelessness” thrill him as an Amherst undergraduate—but his Canadian wife, Barbara, objects. Their peripatetic marriage survives her extended absences to care for her dying father in Toronto and the damage inflicted on his business career when she insists they leave Australia, but he can never get over the fact that Barbara always holds part of herself apart from him. Messud portrays the Cassares at key moments in their lives, beginning in Algeria as France falls in June 1940 and ranging across continents and seven decades: Geneva, Toronto, Toulon, Buenos Aires, suburban Connecticut, and New York—wherever their varied fortunes take them, with the author’s fictional stand-in, aspiring writer Chloe, and her sister, Loulou, entering as schoolgirls in 1970s Sydney. Messud paints compelling portraits of internal conflicts and tangled relationships, dropping along the way tantalizing references to crucial events that will be clarified later, in a rich narrative that defies summary. The novel reaches a poignant climax as the older generations age and die: Gaston and François succumb to physical ailments; Lucienne and Barbara descend into dementia. The marriage of François and Barbara, bitterly antagonistic but ultimately loyal, is perhaps the novel’s most wrenching depiction, but Messud’s gimlet eye and quietly masterful way with words make every character and incident gripping.

Brilliant and heart-wrenching; Messud is one of contemporary literature’s best.