I will eventually forgive myself for not reading The Emperor’s Children the moment an advance reading copy landed in my lap all those years ago. At the time I dismissed it and did the same with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad. Why? When the publishing world tells me it’s great, I pause. What is “great” these days? Post pandemic (numbers are going up and do enough of us care?) post truth, post whatever? Fiction has been front and center of late, as the public refuses to believe truth, fact, or the nose on their face. When A Dream Life landed in my inbox I was intrigued (I also broke one of my cardinal rules, to never read a book on a device, in this case my phone). My heart lifted! Here was my chance at redemption for failing to get on the Claire Messud bus all those years ago. I eventually did read The Emperor’s Children and had to apologize to the person who pushed it on me. Like A Visit From The Goon Squad, it’s an important novel, searing, topical, and resonating. I refuse to use the word “interesting” to describe these two books. Can’t we get more creative than that? If anyone cares to revisit the last twenty years in the literary world, you will be hard pressed to find two books that are more important to the conversation about life in New York City than The Emperor’s Children and Ms. Egan’s gem.
Alice and Teddy Armstrong are the strangers who come to town. Australia is the land they plan to live in while Teddy makes his fortune. With two young daughters in tow, why not rent a manor overlooking the bay of Sydney? This is the setting that Claire Messud places you in, and it’s no dream, just life. Or so it seems. “Al” as she’s commonly referred to by her husband Teddy, is alone in what I would call a mansion (I grew up thirty minutes from Newport, RI, I know from mansions), multiple rooms, big kitchen, and ample grounds. Teddy is an arrogant white-collar businessman who passively/aggressively demands the least amount of parental responsibility and the most amount of elbow bending. If Alice and Teddy aren’t hosting a party, they’re off to a fancy gathering. This story is placed in the 1970’s but I never felt like time was vital to the goings on. Alice doesn’t know what to do with herself as cleaning and cooking are foreign languages. She and Teddy come to Australia from humble beginnings in Buffalo, NY and New York City where Alice worked in publishing. Teddy is the racehorse she’s chosen to ride. The conundrum here is that she needs a housekeeper, and right away our narrator delivers one broken person after the other, and to fail Ms. Armstrong is to fail completely, well, Teddy is the one who wears the pants. I dreaded his heavy-sighing presence as Ms. Messud reveals him to the reader. Alice is not harsh to the help. She is expecting someone to not only clean the house, make meals, but also to tend to her young daughter’s. Teddy works in the banking racket, and he’s dragged his family halfway around the world to make money. As he puts it, “we’re flush” when he tells Alice she can hire whomever she wants. The assumption here is that she keep the house in order, so he won’t be bothered. Anytime someone tells you, in whatever way they tell you, that money is no object means just the opposite. Teddy expects a lot but he’s also providing, let’s not overlook that detail. I defy any reader to put this book down once you start it. Especially when the mysterious Mrs. Funk arrives to care for the children and run the house.
Ms. Messud makes this all sound like juicy gossip whispered between mothers at the playground. Alice’s only job (if you call it that — I do, raising children is a full-time gig) is to worry about how things are going with the housekeeper, and to plan parties. I lied; it’s a dream. The fruity confections that surround Teddy and Alice are fantastic, the Russian caterer, (her high heels on the crushed stone of the walkway; this detail among countless others haunt me) and there’s even a moment where a party tent plays a role in the proceedings. It’s Ms. Funk that steals the show. Alice seems fearful of her role in this Doll’s House that Ms. Messud has built, but she realizes that fretting over things might be her only real task.
A Dream Life is a comment on and an evisceration of privilege. To put it plainly, a fish out of water story. It’s also too short (said the greedy literary snob). I wish it were 500 pages longer because I want to know what Teddy and Alice are up to right now. How did their daughters turn out after the “incident”? I’ll never know, sadly. Readers will come to find out that this novel was written while the author was living in Paris, which would explain the overall tone of the prose, and how I’ve now come to love the word froideur and how it’s used. (If you want a definition, read the book.) I imagine Ms. Messud alone in a quiet spot somewhere dreaming this dream, which as it turns out is no dream, but a trip down her own memory lane.
A Dream Life
by Claire Messud
Tablo Tales; 136 p.
On sale in the United States on January 22, 2022