The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger
Claire Messud is the sort of author that literature majors will be writing dissertations on; indeed, I'm all set to do a dissertation myself, which I will call"Who is Natasha?: Reflections of The Great Russians in Messud", comparing and contrasting Messud and her characters to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev and their characters.
I loved this book, when I finally got my hands on it (I was on the waiting list for ages at my library for it. The week it came in for me, I couldn't make it down to the library, and on the last night it would be held for me, the poor old husband struggled downtown in the cold rain to pick it up. I'm so happy I got it). It's the story of three Brown graduates, living in Manhattan, who are turning 30 and struggling with their careers and love lives, but, as any good novel should be, it's about so much more, but yet without being pretentious. A recurring theme is whether one can live straightforwardly, without artifice or pretension or dishonesty.
Something which absolutely charmed me was that the characters talked over and over again about one of my favorite literary moments: the domestication of Natasha in "War and Peace." They pondered whether, in their relationships, they were Pierre or Natasha. In mine, there is no question: I am Natasha, Anton is Pierre. When I was young and first read "War and Peace", I found the ending horrifying and would have predicted that I would have grown up to be Maria Bolkonskaya, the character I most related to then. I ended up living the life of Natasha instead, complete with the same bizarre-to-onlookers transformation from intense but hot girl into shlubby mommy.
Another very satisfying read lately was The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger. Like "The Emperor's Children", this is a novel which, on the surface, is about social interactions and conversations, but oh so satisfyingly near the surface are big ideas. With both books, you want to set the book down and mull things over, but you're also wanting to plunge forward through the delicious prose. "The Dissident" is about a Chinese artist who has a visiting artist's position in Southern California, teaching a class at a private girls' school and residing with a wealthy family. It's also, without being overly didactic, about the pre-Tianenmen Square artists in China, about performance art, about art itself, and more cogently, about what is not art. In a world where Duchamp has signed a urinal and called it art, What Is Not Art?
After I finished "The Dissident", I walked around for a few days feeling like a performance artist manque. My daughter Lola's life is replete with moments of performance art, but mine feels bereft. I should perhaps clear some space in my living room and put out some flyers for such art events as "Woman Dips Kittens With Ringworm Into Sulfur Solution" (now, that one is bound to create a debate about the place of lowbrow comedy a la Keystone Kops in higher brow performance art).
i love it!
the kitten represents the woman's feminist id. the sulpher solution represents the patriarchial dominant worldview and the ringworm is society's integrated repression of her independence and voice in the world around her!
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