Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review of When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud

Claire Messud made literary waves a couple of years ago when she wrote a book that that had an unpleasant female main character. The question that emerged was whether readers think that female characters are supposed to be likable. Do women only get to be appealing, nice, kind, and attractive?

When an interviewer said that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Messud’s main character in The Woman Upstairs, Messud responded:

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”

Later, she said to the New York Times Book Review Podcast

“I couldn’t help but feel that it was a gendered question. I don’t think we as readers expect to identify with or admire male protagonists, and I suddenly had a feeling that there was this expectation of a woman protagonist by a woman reader.”

While this exchange happened in 2013, the same issue could have been raised in 1994, the year that Messud’s first novel, When the World Was Steady, was published. In this book, two sisters, raised by a prickly single mother, seem different in every way. Virginia, the older sister, continues to live with her mother, working at an uninspiring job in London and searching for God. At an emotional breaking point, she decides to go with her mother on a rare vacation to Scotland’s Isle of Skye, a place that has familial significance.

Emmy, the younger of the two, moves from London to Australia in her twenties an never looks back. Now in her forties and divorced, she takes off to Bali in search of a new identity. She somewhat ironically finds herself enmeshed in the life of an odd group of Australians.

Each of these women – Virginia, Emmy, and their mother – is uniquely unpleasant. But somehow each is also deeply compelling and relatable. I didn’t want to be friends with them, but I did want to see what happened to them over the course of the novel.

As I was reading, I was struck by the utter separateness of the two sections. The story of each sister on each island (Can you holler, METAPHOR!) could exist as part of its own interesting novel about running away or finding one’s self. But there they were together, told in alternating chunks, as if the relationship between the women did not even exist. I had a conversation in my head about how weird this total separation was and felt a little bit critical until the very last chapter. And then – Wow! – it made sense. I was knocked over by the ending, which satisfied me in an unexpected way.

I don’t often go back and read authors’ backlists, especially first novels. But I picked this one up at a library sale for 75 cents after reading the author’s The Emperor’s Children years ago. This was one of my picks for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge (if you’re keeping score, I’ve read 2 out of 12 so far). 

There is a lot of good stuff about Messud on the interwebs. Here’s an interesting article about her home life, and here’s one with her ideas about art and writing.


Gabrielle said...

Wow, this was a good write up! And you liked the ending, doubly satisfying!

Do YOU think that was a gendered question? (And I suspect I know the answer...)

But isn't that in some way the allure of "chick lit" and lighter fiction - that we want to like the person/woman? This book is obviously not in that chick lit category, but don't we want Kinsey Millhone to get her man (the perp, not a boyfriend), or Bernadette to make a break for it?

Did When the World was Steady feel 20 years old? Your write-up really made we want to read it.

jennifer said...

I do think that we have different expectations for female characters. The ones that are "strong" often still need to get rescued in some way, or show their vulnerability, in order for readers to enjoy them. I also imagine that female authors are more often asked about the nice-ness or relatability of their characters.

I was listing to the Bookrageous podcast yesterday, and it was about the issue of strong female characters. One of the bookish people on it said that Messud, in talking about The Woman Upstairs, said in an interview that if we had met the main character of that book on the street, we'd say she was "really nice." She was a middle aged teacher, accommodating, put needs of others first. But as a reader, we live in her head, and, like most people, her thoughts are not always "nice."

jennifer said...

I didn't *Love* this book, but I did appreciate the craft of it in the end.

And to your last question -- it felt 20 years old, because the characters didn't have cell phones. I think that the idea of getting lost or running from your life is kind of a dated concept now. It's hard to be "far away" when you're always connected. That said, the character that goes to Bali might be difficult to reach even today unless she heads up to the fancy resort area.