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A Dream Life
Claire Messud ’87
Tablo Tales, $19.95
Reviewed by Debra Spark ’84 

In Messud’s novella A Dream Life, Alice Armstrong feels uneasy in her new Australian home. She’s used to occupying a small Upper East Side apartment with her husband and two young daughters. Now, thanks to her husband’s new bank job, she’s been installed in a (furnished) mansion that feels, even in 1971, like something out of a Jane Austen novel. Initially built by a man with a status-conscious wife, the house seems to require something of its inhabitants, and Alice (given her otherwise empty days) obeys its demands, at first cleaning, and then sensing she should hire help. She engages with a series of servants, whom she observes quite precisely, if not always accurately, while managing to be an employer who is both aware of and oblivious to the stratifications of class and the flip-flopping nature of power.

The novella’s language mirrors the house rather than the uncertainty of its temporary mistress. Messud’s elegant, clever, complex sentences carry one through, even early on, when the story of the story isn’t yet clear but the gorgeous descriptions still entice, as with this unspooling of Alice’s thoughts on her arrival in Sydney: “Now slipping like a ghost through the opulent rooms, Alice thought she understood where she was: in a dream life, where nothing could matter and nothing would last, a hiatus from reality which, precisely like time travel, would deposit her back on her own shores, in her own time, at some unforeseeable but anticipated moment.”

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