Claire Messud's 'This Strange Eventful History' borrows from her own past Messud draws from her grandfather's handwritten memoir as she tells a cosmopolitan, multigenerational story about a family forced to move from Algeria to Europe to South and North America.


Book Reviews

Claire Messud's sweeping novel borrows from her own 'Strange Eventful History'

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This is FRESH AIR. Claire Messud is known for contemporary novels rich in psychological insight like "The Emperor's Children" and "The Woman Upstairs." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that the title of Messud's latest novel signals something different. It's called "This Strange Eventful History." Here's Maureen's review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Claire Messud's new novel, called "This Strange Eventful History, " is a cosmopolitan, multigenerational story that paradoxically sticks close to home. Messud drew her novel from a handwritten memoir of over 1,000 pages written by her paternal grandfather. That side of Messud's family were Pied-Noirs, French Algerians expelled from their home in 1962 when Algeria won its independence from France. Displacement, both political and personal, is Messud's timely subject here. After being forced from their home, the fictional Cassar family moves from Algeria to Europe, to South and North America, never quite feeling settled in these different locales or in themselves.

The opening section of the novel focuses on June 14, 1940, the day the Germans conquered Paris. Gaston Cassar is a French naval attache, serving at the consulate in Greece. His wife Lucienne and their two children, along with a dependent aunt, have fled Greece, hoping to reach the safety of their home in Algeria. The perspective toggles back and forth between their experiences and Gaston's, particularly his career-damaging decision not to heed General de Gaulle's call to his fellow Frenchmen to join him in exile in London. Gaston felt he needed to hear from Lucienne before he made a decision. She's his life, his anchor, and his rock.

Throughout the story, we readers will frequently be told that Gaston's marriage to Lucienne seemed to be the masterpiece of both their lives. As she does throughout the novel, Messud tucks in delayed reveals about the characters. So it is that deep into the story, we learn that Lucienne is 13 years older than Gaston. In the novel's final pages, this unusual age disparity becomes devastatingly meaningful. I'm a Herman Wouk fan, so I don't mean this as an insult when I say there's a bit of a winds of war feel to this panoramic opening section, the chaos of train stations crammed with terrified pushing bodies, the international cast of characters, temporarily marooned, the overall sense of a world in free fall. Messud could have carried on in this fashion, tracing how the larger forces of history shape the family's destiny. But something much more interesting begins to happen after we leave World War II behind.

The narrative skips forward in time at jagged intervals, and the perspective shifts to different members of the Cassar clan. As years speed by, characters change, sometimes drastically, from the people we readers originally thought they were. Not only human events then, but human personality is unstable in Messud's family saga. For instance, in 1940, Gaston and Lucienne's son, Francois is a responsible kid, solicitous of his frail, younger sister Denise. Leap ahead roughly a decade, and Francois is now a self-absorbed college student in America, the kind of dreamer who drives to Key West to find the end of the road and his existential self. Fair enough. After all, the Beat movement is in the air.

But when we next see Francois in Part 3 of this thick novel, it's through the disappointed eyes of his WASPy wife, Barbara. Perhaps, she reflects, she made a mistake marrying a man whose relationship to the known world would always be askew at an uneasy angle. Still later in middle age, Francois is given to eruptions of fury that drive Barbara and his daughters away. Who is this person?

The more radical changes within characters' selves, of course, are wrought by time. Francois, once so alive in his anger, fades in old age into a version of his courtly father, Gaston. In what could well be the verdict of the novel, Barbara looks at the diminished Francois and declares to herself, all life and the generations suddenly collapsing like an accordion. Messud says in her acknowledgments that "This Strange Eventful History" is one of those books that take a lifetime to write. The novel certainly has the stately sweep and weight of a magnum opus. But I don't think Messud is simply praising her own accomplishment. As I've said, this is a novel about displacement, both political and personal. And you have to have lived a while to write as Messud does here with such intimate melancholy about how time messes with us all, displacing us from earlier versions of ourselves.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "This Strange Eventful History" by Claire Messud. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be actor Tyler James Williams. I'll talk about his role as a no-nonsense teacher on the hit series "Abbott Elementary," and how the show gave him back his confidence after years of fearing that he'd never have much of a career outside of having been a child actor and a young Chris Rock on the show "Everybody Hates Chris." I hope you'll join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi, and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

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