Messud reflects on a childhood move from her Connecticut home to Australia; the complex relationship between her modern Canadian mother and a fiercely single French Catholic aunt; and a trip to Beirut, where her pied-noir father had once lived, while he was dying. She meditates on contemporary classics from Kazuo Ishiguro, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, and Valeria Luiselli. She explores her drive to write.
Our Dogs is one of about 25 essays in Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, and it’s in many ways emblematic — the elegance of it, the challenge of it. Messud isn’t a writer who grabs her subject matter by the throat or pumps her prose full of kinetic energy. She moseys, she circles, she lies in wait. She sighs where others might scream, mists up where others might sob, ponders 'holistic foulness' where others might just run for the cleaner-smelling hills ... But more often than not, it works. There’s usually a moral in her sights, one worth getting to, and there’s sometimes a deceptively strong current of feeling beneath a surface of reserve. I didn’t gobble these essays down, as I would a bucket of buttered popcorn. I savored them in unhurried spoonfuls, as with a bowl of glistening consommé. And I felt amply fed ... These essays don’t carry the same weight or deliver the same punch [as Open City demonstrates her great talent for enlarging the context of whatever she’s writing about and weaving in astute bits of broader commentary. It also captures her determinedly elevated tone and vocabulary, which won’t be to every reader’s taste ... The ending of her take on The Door demonstrates her even greater talent for bringing her essays to a poignant, haunting close, with a few final phrases that distill the meaning of all that preceded them and send a kind of shudder through your mind and heart. If she were a gymnast, she’d be renowned for sticking her landings ... That’s why Messud writes. It gives the past a future.
She risks coming across as elitist — ouroboros, for those who lack her formidable vocabulary, refers to a snake swallowing its own tail — but her intent is generous ... Her faith is quite possibly unrealistic, but couched in Messud’s lucid, quietly fiery prose, it’s also inspiring ... Messud communicates that inner life and the outer trappings of her peripatetic childhood with marvelous particularity, capturing in palpable, resonant detail various family homes and intricate familial interactions ... astute ... Progressing from Messud’s autobiographical essays through her criticism, we come to understand what she most values in art.
Exceptionally astute, artistic, and eviscerating ... Messud’s personal essays are, by turns, mischievously funny, emotionally wrenching, and elegantly intellectual ... Messud steers us to the light of forthright inquiry, truth, and beauty.