Brief Encounters: On Claire Messud’s Melodramas

In Claire Messud’s latest novel, This Strange Eventful History, a woman finds out that the object of her unreciprocated love had been cheating on his wife. For years, she had obsessed over him privately, plastering onto his image the idea of a perfect man. The revelation of his infidelity totally ruins the picture, and tears her to bits: it’s like “a hurricane, destroying in minutes the delicately spun and so long preserved shimmering web of her love affair—yes, she’d considered it all these years a love affair, though they had never held hands, let alone kissed.”

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Given that they had never actually become involved, and that the man was married to begin with, hers is an overreaction; we could say it’s melodramatic. Though the word melodrama might evoke emergency-room dramas and the impossible entanglements, evil twins, and fake deaths of classic soap operas, that’s not how I mean it. I’m thinking of domestic stories in which the experience of a moment, a person, or an event exceeds the regular boundaries of life, calling the fabric of reality into question.

I’m thinking of a lonely housewife or a husband tormented by a secret; a depth of experience that turns an ordinary life into an extraordinary one. In the postwar period in the United States, the German-born filmmaker Douglas Sirk used domestic settings to interrogate how the weight of societal convention weighed on people’s lives—just questioning these conventions, his films argued, was enough to blow a person’s life apart. These are the kinds of experiences that are small in scope but enormous in repercussion: however briefly, they change the codes and attitudes by which a character might live.

In his book The Melodramatic Imagination, the literary critic Peter Brooks traces the origins of the genre to post-revolutionary France and defines it through an “aesthetics of excess.” The melodrama can be broadly understood as an intensified version of drama, in which every element of a story or a picture—plot, character, feeling, sound and set design—is heightened, overwhelming the senses. In a 2003 article for the New York Times, in which he argued that a melodramatic tendency towards earnestness was slowly replacing the ironic cynicism of Generation X art, the classics scholar Daniel Mendelsohn proposed that melodrama is “camp minus irony:” like camp, it “revels in excess and synthetically produced emotion,” but it rejects self-aware cheekiness.

In the 1950s, Sirk’s melodramas were called “women’s pictures” or “weepies”—because many of them were about women and focused on how being mothers, daughters, wives, or widows might affect their emotional lives, it was assumed that their content was frivolous. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his films were reassessed by film critics, including feminist ones. They were newly understood as films that subverted the postwar ideology by looking squarely at the kind of environment that produced women like Sirk’s protagonists: a country club, a Texan town, a suburban community. These environments were determined to make women small, and small they were, crushed by the tragedies that befell them. It was also during this period of reassessment that Sirk came to be known for his technical showmanship; his use of saturated Technicolor emphasized the brittle beauty of a perfect kitchen or a level-hedged garden.

It would be an oversimplification to call Messud’s books melodramas in any absolute sense of the word. Brooks points out that at the core of many melodramas is a clear-cut struggle between good and evil, a binary that is not exactly the realm of the contemporary novelist. In fact, Messud explicitly states her disinterest in this kind of simplistic judgment in various articles and interviews. She is known to quote Chekhov: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people, it’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”

Still, it makes sense to place her in the moment identified by Mendelsohn. Coming out of Generation X,  her books are often melodramatic—if not just for their aesthetic verve, which emerges in textural, breathless long senses, then particularly because of their focus on how convention, especially the kind enforced by family and history, might impose on the way a woman defines herself; and by extension, narrow the scope of her life.

Where Messud veers off the Sirkian track is that her women are notoriously obstinate and sometimes even “unlikeable;” facing the truth isn’t all that pretty. Her 2013 novel, The Woman Upstairs, famously opens: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know.” On the occasion of that novel’s publication, Messud made literary headlines for getting incensed when an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly suggested she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, the angry woman in question. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Messud replied. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”

Since then, much has been made out of the “unlikeable female character” trope, but when Messud was coming up, that territory was dominated mostly by ambitious male writers, particularly in terms of the sprawling family novel—think Jonathan Franzen, or Jeffrey Eugenides. As the critic Ruth Franklin pointed out in a 2017 profile of Messud for the New York Times, Messud lead the field in writing frankly about the ugly truths of the female experience, and over the course of the last thirty years, she has made an extraordinary career out of mixing a literary ambition traditionally perceived as masculine with melodrama, a genre traditionally misunderstood as feminine.


This Strange Eventful History tells the story of the Cassars, a French Algerian family, over three generations. It starts in 1940 in Algeria, with a nine-year-old boy named François writing to his father shortly after the Germans stormed Paris. François’s father, Gaston, a naval attache posted in Salonica (now Thessaloniki), debates whether to answer de Gaulle’s call to fight for a free France in London or succumb to defeat and move to a post in Beirut, where he might sooner be reunited with his wife Lucienne and their two children. He chooses Lucienne. Over the next seventy years, the ramifications of this decision and others like it will be deeply felt by the Cassars.

Her books are often melodramatic—if not just for their aesthetic verve, which emerges in textural, breathless long senses, then particularly because of their focus on how convention, especially the kind enforced by family and history, might impose on the way a woman defines herself; and by extension, narrow the scope of her life.

All of the winding roads through the novel’s big themes—colonialism and its violences, national identity and its delusions—converge around one core issue: marriage. The tale of Gaston and Lucienne’s love is mythological in scope, and serves as the foundation on which the family builds itself. Separated by the encroaching war, Gaston grieves madly: “What was the point of anything without Lucienne?” No matter how many years go by, his devotion to his wife never abates. Already old and frail, he still thinks of her as “his greatest solace, the meaning of his life.” They are “Platonic spirits, only together fully one;” their marriage “the masterpiece” of their lives.

The pressure to find and recreate that love, for François and his sister Denise, becomes the family’s convention, the legacy trickling down the generations and trapping them into a set of expectations: the husband will be honorable and devoted utmostly to his family, above even country or belief; the woman will be likewise committed, a benevolent force serving as the guiding light to those under her care. A perfect marriage becomes the family heirloom.

But that expectation is a tall order—especially for women like Barbara, François’s Canadian wife, who were only just breaking free of the idea that women “have” to do anything. In 1974, resenting the choices she had already made at the height of the second wave of the feminist movement, doing the dishes after serving her in-laws a three-course dinner, Barbara thinks: “the Age of Aquarius was a lie.” Hemmed in by the demands of motherhood and wifehood in a marriage held to literally platonic standards, Barbara admits to herself that “she would never leave, would not, could not, break free of all that tied her.”

In her body of work, Messud returns repeatedly to the question of what a person might stand to gain from shedding or abiding by family conventions. Is it ever possible to escape them? If so—is that escape desirable? Her second novel, The Last Life, from 1999, which also follows a French Algerian family with a formidable patriarch, is narrated by Sagesse LaBasse, who looks back on her adolescence in a small town in the French Mediterranean coast following a formative incident—her grandfather, the owner of a hotel fashionable with the Parisian bourgeoisie, shoots at her friend group when they refuse to stop using the pool after hours.

It’s a watershed moment in Sagesse’s perception of her grandfather’s implacability: the very foundation of her understanding of her family—and by extension, of herself—comes into question when it becomes clear that the mythos that surrounds him is just that: a story, like all others. Towards the end of the novel, her whole family blown apart, Sagesse muses: “It is a terrible thing to be free. Nations know this; churches know this. People, however, seek to skirt the knowledge. They elevate freedom to a Holy Grail, disregarding the truth that constraints are what define us, in life and in language alike: we yearn to be sentenced.”

In her review of This Strange Eventful History for the New Yorker, the critic Jennifer Wilson points out that François’s desperate attachment to the constraints of marriage, despite Barbara’s resistance, comes from a struggle with a different set of rules: the ones determined by national identity. As a pied noir, a Frenchman born and raised in Algeria, his whiteness, Wilson writes, is perceived by his American and continental European peers as “impure, murky.” Grappling with this confusion, “François immediately starts looking for a way out of his quandary, or, rather, a way into an uncomplicated identity. Naively, he chooses ‘husband.’” For him, keeping the tradition of his parents’ marriage alive means gaining firmness of ground, providing a certainty as “immutable” as his father’s own definition of himself: “I am Mediterranean, I am Latin, I am Catholic, I am French.”

The notion of a love so strong it can alleviate a social pressure is a melodramatic one: star-crossed romance was the basis for many of the postwar melodramas that were dismissed as “women’s pictures.” Often, though, the love succumbed to whatever convention pushed against it from the start: that’s why they were  so sad. In Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, widowed housewife Cary (Jane Wyman) is hopelessly in love with her gardener, a much younger man named Ron (Rock Hudson). The gossiping vultures in her affluent suburb monitor Cary’s happiness: the possibilities for a fulfilling love story, this late in the game, are supposed to be foreclosed. Cary fights a good fight, but she ends up literally defeated, lying on a couch with a handkerchief to her forehead. The taboo remains intact; Cary and Ron’s romance just a freak chapter in the otherwise immaculate record of her suburban life.

In her body of work, Messud returns repeatedly to the question of what a person might stand to gain from shedding or abiding by family conventions. Is it ever possible to escape them? If so—is that escape desirable?

The postwar Hollywood melodrama always ended in the restitution of the status quo, repressing the characters into victory: no housewives ever became happier or more rebellious or found lasting reprieve from the drudgery of living in an invisible life. But it’s impossible to take back the fact that, however briefly, they were privy to a different kind of life—for a moment, breaking free of the constraints was not only possible but within reach.

When the World Was Steady, Messud’s debut novel, follows two sisters, Virginia and Emmy, and their mother, Melody, each on a path to remake their own unhappy realities. Emmy, who flees to Thailand following the sudden dissolution of her marriage—her husband was having an affair with one of her friends—believes in “in the creation of one’s own luck.” Virginia, devoutly Christian, believes in God’s plan until she catches her Reverend having sex with a—horror of all horrors—male parishioner. She suffers a crisis of faith and semi-catatonically follows her mother on a pilgrimage to their ancestors’ home in the Scottish island of Skye. A review in the Independent considered the novel “a success in that the sisters and their mother return practically unchanged to the shells of their previous lives, having experienced no major revelation.”

It’s true, sort of: the status quo prevails when Virginia continues to trust God with her life and Emmy returns to her place in Sydney’s high society, so that on the surface nothing has changed. But the melodrama’s central concern is how the arrangement of a person’s interior life might be forever altered by the depth of the experience, no matter how fleeting—it’s what makes it so sad. Back home in Sydney, settled back into her old routines, Emmy admits to herself that “she had thrilled to her illusions of honesty and freedom,” and “would believe that somewhere, at some time, she had truly been herself,” even if that true self never left the realm of the imagination and stepped into reality.

Throughout This Strange Eventful History, Messud drops hints that there is a secret at the heart of Gaston and Lucienne’s marriage that could shatter the illusion of their platonic wholesomeness. In the prologue, Chloe—the only character in the book whose perspective is in the first person, she is a sort of stand-in for Messud herself, who based the book on her own family’s history, including a 1,500-page memoir left by her grandfather—muses: “I could begin with the secrets and shame, the ineffable shame that in telling [the family’s] story I would wish at last to heal.” When the secret is revealed at the very end, it’s shocking; suffice it to say that the order of things is preserved. It’s also towards the end that Chloe finds the old diary in which her spinster aunt recounted her unreciprocated love affair. Of her impossible love, “it was enough, she wrote, to know that [he was] in the world; she did not need to possess [him].”

Chloe’s aunt, like her brother François, never did manage to find the kind of love that came close to their parents’—in that sense, they failed their familial duty, and that failure tints every relationship they have. After reading her aunt’s account, Chloe wonders: “How much of our lives did we control? And what of love? Of what had my aunt’s long love consisted? Was it the less real for existing only in her head?”

It’s a melodramatic question—can a private experience alter the depth of a person’s life? Can she use it to escape her own fate, once it has been determined by history, personal or at large? A character like Emmy might believe so—but then again she knew she was lying to herself. One thing that Messud’s women can say for sure is that they tried—and trying, the melodrama would argue, is not nothing. In fact, trying is what makes a life.

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