The author of The Burning Girl returns with a novel set at the dawn of the 1970s in Australia. When the Armstrong family moves from New York, Australia feels, to Alice Armstrong, like the end of the earth. Residing in a grand manor on the glittering Sydney Harbour, she and her family find their lives have turned upside down.
I defy any reader to put this book down once you start it. Especially when the mysterious Mrs. Funk arrives to care for the children and run the house. Ms. Messud makes this all sound like juicy gossip whispered between mothers at the playground ... A Dream Life is a comment on and an evisceration of privilege. To put it plainly, a fish out of water story. It’s also too short (said the greedy literary snob). I wish it were 500 pages longer because I want to know what Teddy and Alice are up to right now.
... [a] triumph ... A Dream Life feels like an afternoon fever dream, which those who have suffered through COVID may recognize. And the social structures that fall prey to a slowly thinning veil feel like an emotionally tense situation that perhaps mirrors some of our own isolation and trust issues arising from the pandemic. This arresting novella imagines that the dream life of most is the dream life of only those who can balance themselves on the rocky course of the lies required to live in such a way.
At the heart of the book is Alice’s awkward (if sometimes giddy) transformation into a member of the aristocracy. Ms. Messud is excellent on the complications of finding and managing household employees and hosting garden parties—or 'fetes,' as the upper-crust primly call them. Carefully observed domestic details are thrown into relief by the sense of disorientation that undermines the narrative ... Not all of A Dream Life strikes me as successful. The ending, especially, is oddly anticlimactic considering the richness of the book’s characters and conflicts. But Ms. Messud is clearly well suited to the novella’s compact form, alive to the specifics of the sentences but able to draw back to see the mystery of the whole.