The Burning Girl

Messud_final_front.indd   In her interview of Claire Messud for the New York Times, Ruth Franklin identified the writer as the “one of the foremost chroniclers of women’s hidden appetites.”  Just as in her slow building tale of shocking exposure in The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud uses her character’s yearning as a focal point,  and turns tedium into introspective terror in The Burning Girl.

This story involves the relationship between two girls – best friends as they are growing up – until they are not.  In the interview Messud mentions her inspiration for her premise, the unraveling of a friendship not long after her family moved from Toronto to Sydney.  “I’m not talking to you,” a close friend told her one day.  “Why?” Messud asked.  “You know why,” the girl replied.

In the novel, the narrator, Julia, notes “My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more or less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point.”  It happened to me, and I saw it happen to one of my daughters.  Messud told the interviewer she viewed “the ending of a friendship as a universal rite of passage,” and she effectively uses the disconnect between Julia and Cassie in her novel.

More than the estrangement of the two friends is Messud’s handling of their differences that eventually causes them to see each other differently.  “As if I’d been holding an apple and thinking it was a tennis ball…”  As young girls, Julia and Cassie play and have adventures.  By middle school, Julia is clearly destined for a better life.  Her grades are better, she is tapped for the speech team, her parents send her to drama camp in the summer.  Cassie, whose single parent works late hours as a hospice nurse, finds make-up and boyfriends, works summer jobs, and is disinterested in making the grade in school.  When her mother finds a boyfriend who moves into their house, her life changes dramatically.

Their friendship suffers and Cassie finds a new best friend.  Her unhappy home life leads her to look for her real father, only a name to her, declared dead by her mother.  She finds his name on the internet and decides to confront him – another piece from Messud’s real life.  Messud cites a friend who did just that with dire consequences.  When Cassie disappears, Julia knows where to find her when she remembers their old childhood secret haunts, but the discovery is not welcomed.

Just as in the ending of The Woman Upstairs, the ending of The Burning Girl leaves the reader with more to think about than a tidy conclusion.  Julia’s life seems to be on a trajectory for success, but Cassie’s life is in question.  What will happen to her?  Will she continue to want more for her life or be beaten down by circumstances? In her interview, Messud says her work offers space for women to be “appetitive,” to love inappropriately, to be ambitious, to simply want more…”sometimes…they manage to find ways to get what they want.”

In the interview Messud cites her favorite British fairy tale – “Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep.”  In the story, Elsie saves the day by skipping with a magic rope – as an old woman, she’s still skipping.  Maybe Cassie will have that – maybe we’ll all have that magic – to keep skipping, no matter what bumps come along in life…and for young girls – that burning fire in the belly to want more.

Review:  The Woman Upstairs

Interview with Claire Messud



The Door by Magda Szabó

9781590177716_p0_v2_s192x300Claire Messud’s review of the Hungarian translation of The Door by Magda Szabó in the New York Times prompted my reading, but I did not expect the powerful and captivating story.  Without much fanfare, the story has crept into my mind and lingers there.

The story follows the relationship of two women – Emerence, a strong-willed old woman who has come to manage the house of a prominent Hungarian writer, Magda, who later in the book wins Hungary’s most prestigious award, possibly the Kossuth Prize.  Emerence comes from the old school of hard work, saving money for her funeral, and voicing her opinions whether or not they have been solicited.  The writer, who nurses her own feelings of inadequacy, clashes with Emerence on everything – from morality to mortality.  They live in an uncomfortable truce until Emerence finally decides to reveal her history.

Tapping into Hungary’s strange political history (the novel was written in 1987 but just now making it to American publishing), Szabó weaves government tensions into the background, but the story focuses on the women, their differences and their mutual respect.  At times, I saw myself, my mother, fellow writers, friends, would-be friends – in the traits of Szabo’s characters.  The best character may be Viola, the dog.

The “door” is the front door of Emerence’s house – an entry that no one is privileged to enter.  When she talks of her treasures and her cats, at first she seems to be creating her own fantasy; however, later, the truth of her history and her possessions becomes clear.

The plot moves slowly, following Emerence and Magda to a final showdown with an ending true to characters, but leaving a sour taste and a cautious reminder that sometimes the strong can control events, even death.  I noted so many plums of wisdom; here are a few that linger in my mind:

She inspired trust because people knew they could open their hearts to her without expecting her own confidences in return…

Cheerfulness keeps you fresh; its opposite exhausts…

…her goodness was innate, mine was the result of upbringing…

Creativity requires a state of grace…

Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, summarized the novel’s effect so well:

“A work of stringent honesty and delicate subtlety, “The Door” is a story in which, superficially, very little happens. Szabó’s narrator, like the author a writer named Magda (in interviews, Szabo suggested that the novel was only thinly veiled personal history), follows the intricacies of her intimate filial relationship with her housekeeper, Emerence. In doing so, it exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes the agonies of Hungary’s recent history.”

Related Reviews:


The Woman Upstairs

9780307596901_p0_v2_s260x420Focusing on a lifetime of regret and a glaring betrayal, Clare Messud spins a slow teasing tale in The Woman Upstairs.  As the story opens, the narrator has clearly survived whatever has made her so angry – and has become stronger for it – but Messud carefully avoids details, giving the surprise ending greater impact.

Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged third grade teacher, regrets her life, especially not having children and not having a career in art.  She fulfills Messud’s definition of the woman upstairs – the bland, nice girl, liked by everyone, loved by no one, who dutifully cared for her ailing mother, visits her lonely father, cheers her aging aunt with store-bought cakes, and treads the mill of unending boredom, realizing that while waiting for her real life to begin, she may have missed it.  She expresses her art through dioramas – dollhouse sized rooms she plans to create to replicate the lives of famous women authors.  The Ibsen reference (Nora, dollhouse) is no accident.

Only the beginning of Emily Dickinson’s room has evolved when Nora’s lonely life intersects with a new family.  The Shahids are in Cambridge for a year, and eight year-old Reza appears in Nora’s third grade class in his European sandals, long curly hair, and Parisian accent.  His father, Skandar, teaches at Harvard and his mother, Sirena, is a multimedia artist who creates feminist performance art.  Messud creates an incident for Nora to meet Sirena – the school bully attacks charming Reza.  Instantly, the two women make a connection that evolves into sharing studio space – a small corner for Nora’s dollhouse rooms, the rest for Sirena’s installation of Wonderland, a life-sized reproduction of Lewis Carroll’s story that allows viewers to participate in the art and be videotaped as they succumb to their imaginations.

As the story evolves, Nora seems to experience a reawakening and imagines she has become part of the Shahid family.  Her fantasies include becoming a second mother to Reza, a lover to Skandar, and a confidante and fellow artist to her new best friend, Sirena.  Nora readily babysits for Reza. sews for Sirena, listens to Skandar’s philosophizing,  but Messud is careful to keep the reader wondering – are Nora’s feelings being reciprocated by the Shahids or is she merely being tolerated  – or maybe even used?

Eventually, the Shahids return to Paris, but Nora keeps her torch burning for them.  Despite their sparse communication, she follows them on google searches, noting when Skandar is promoted and Sirena has new sponsors for her art.  At the age of 42, Nora decides to take a year off from teaching to concentrate on her own art and to travel.  Of course, she visits the Shahids who are polite but estranged dinner hosts.  On one of her last days in Paris, Nora finds an obscure exhibition of Sirena’s videotapes of the Wonderland exhibit –  from both Parisian viewers and those made in their shared studio.

The pacing of the novel is strangely addictive; I kept turning pages – not necessarily to find out what had triggered Nora’s anger – that was easy to forget as Nora’s lonely existence blossomed and then wilted again.  Messud’s language captured smoldering moments:

“This is what’s most surprising about life, really: the most enormous things – sometimes fatal things – occur in the flicker of an eye…”

“…and I didn’t particularly want anyone to tell me it was good….I just wanted to be got, and I didn’t trust that I would be.”

Of course, when the ending comes and you discover the cause of Nora’s anger, you will be shocked.  Messud crafts her ending for speculation: will Nora be so strengthened by her anger that the satisfying possibilities of her life will now come, or will she revert to her old isolation in her fury?  I prefer to think she will channel her lessons learned to finally begin her life.

A captivating but slow revelation of the “good girl” – not the “gone girl.”