A self-described “good girl” lifts her mask in Messud’s scarifying new novel (The Emperor’s Children, 2006, etc.).
“How angry am I?” Nora Eldridge rhetorically asks in her opening sentence. “You don’t want to know.” But she tells us anyway. Nora is furious with her dead mother, her elderly father and her estranged brother, none of whom seem to have done anything very terrible. Basically, Nora is furious with herself: for failing to commit to being an artist, for settling for life as a third-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass., for lacking the guts even to be openly enraged. Instead, she is the woman upstairs, “whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell.” So when the exotic Shahid family enters her life in the fall of 2004, Nora sees them as saviors. Reza is in her class; after another student attacks and calls the half-Lebanese boy “a terrorist,” she meets his Italian mother, Sirena, the kind of bold, assertive artist Nora longs to be. They wind up sharing a studio, and Nora eventually neglects her own work to help Sirena with a vast installation called Wonderland. She’s also drawn to Skandar, an academic whose one-year fellowship has brought his family to Cambridge from Paris. “So you’re in love with Sirena, and you want to fuck her husband and steal her child,” comments Nora’s friend Didi after she confesses her intense feelings. It’s nowhere near that simple, as the story unfolds to reveal Sirena as something of a user—and perhaps Skandar too, though it’s unwise to credit Nora’s jaundiced perceptions. Her untrustworthy, embittered narration, deliberately set up as a feminine counterpoint to the rantings of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, is an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms. Messud persuasively plunges us into the tortured psyche of a conflicted soul whose defiant closing assertion inspires little confidence that Nora can actually change her ways.
Brilliant and terrifying.