Nora Eldridge has always been a good girl: a good daughter, colleague, friend, employee. She teaches at an elementary school where the children and the parents adore her; but her real passion is her art, which she makes alone, unseen.
One day Reza Shahid appears in her classroom: eight years old, a perfect, beautiful boy. Reza's father has a fellowship at Harvard and his mother is a glamorous and successful installation artist. Nora is admitted into their charmed circle, and everything is transformed. Or so she believes. Liberation from her old life is not quite what it seems, and she is about to suffer a betrayal more monstrous than anything she could have imagined.
The gifted Messud, writing her way through the ages, has now arrived at a woman in her 40s and it s not pretty. Nora Eldridge, a schoolteacher who dreams of being an artist, is angry, cynical, and quietly desperate. Then she meets the Shahid family: Sirena, Skandar, and Reza, a student in Nora s third-grade class at Appleton Elementary in Cambridge, Mass. When Sirena asks Nora to share an artists studio, Nora falls in love with each exotic Shahid in turn: Sirena, for her artistic vision; Skandar, for his intellectual fervor; and Reza, because he s a perfectly beautiful child, bullied at school but magnanimous. In her previous books, Messud (The Emperor s Children) has set individuals against the weight of kin; here is an individual who believes she s found a vigorous self in the orbit of a dangerously charismatic family. But after freeing Nora from herself, the Shahids betray her, Sirena especially, cruelly exploiting a private moment of Nora s newfound joy with an intimate work of art Sirena shows in Paris without Nora s knowledge. As with other Messud characters, these too are hard to love; few would want to know the unpalatable Nora, so full of self-loathing, nor the self-important Shahids.