In late August, The Economist gave this novel a glittering page-long review. While I am hesitant to read anything that deals with September 11 (non-fiction seems too real and too spun these days, and any fiction seems disrespectful), I was intrigued. So much so, I pre-ordered it off of Amazon, a new event for me.
This is one of the better modern novels I have read in a long time. It follows a a group of friends from college (Brown) who are now in their thirties for about seven months, March through November of 2001 (thus lopsidedly straddling September 11). The characters' relationships with one another wax and wane as significant others enter the picture, and as jobs become frustrating or non-existent. Each character is prone to intricate self-reflection.
This book paints a picture of post-modern American life that (to me) hasn't been captured before (even absent the appearance of September 11) . Marina is the daughter of a prominent liberal pundit and commentator. Her friend Danielle has the most prominent and stable job, but is way over-skilled for the position she holds. Marina, born silver-spoon in mouth and blessed with good looks, struggles with completing a book deal that everyone really assumes she got because of who her father is. Though Marina's father, Murray, became well-known as a liberal journalist in the 1960s, he is still in demand as a lecturer and commentator. Through the book, however, it emerges that the man has had very few new ideas since his heyday and that he has just been republishing and recycling the same thoughts over and over.
I think the interesting thing is that each character seems to acknowledge in some way that he/she is (to borrow from Catcher in the Rye) a phony. Murray eventually asks himself if he is actually the genius that everyone thinks (or pretends to think) he is. Danielle knows that her job is not as interesting as she makes it out to be, but feels comfortable in the fact that while Marina is the rich and pretty one, she is the smart one with the stable job.
Messud does a wonderful job of capturing the malaise of the young, educated, and unfulfilled. She aptly portrays familiar human sentiments of the now; how everyone thinks that the undeserving often succeed but that they themselves are always entitled to have more: how often we become willing subsribers to systems (capitalism, class, mores) that we once abhored: or how habituated we have become to being forced to participate in systems or play roles unwillingly, just to get by.
The events of September 11 provide a shock to the characters, but each in a different way. Interestingly, it mostly prompts more navel-gazing in the characters, rather than any sort of external aggression.
I really haven't given too much away here. My only "critique" if you could call it that, is that the dialogue is too refined. No one really "talks like that." Even the over-educated. That said, I don't think Messud could have developed this story or painted the images she did any other way. Her prose and character development is amazing.
NY TIMES REVIEW (much better than mine)