Having approached this book by a well-known critic with deepest suspicion, I'm now a complete convert. Readers, she's the real thing - someone who can transport you into somebody else's life and keep you there.
A Simple Life is obviously modelled on Flaubert's Un Coeur Simple (if you're into Eng. Lit., otherwise it doesn't matter). It begins like a thriller with Maria, a maid, discovering a trail of blood. Her employer isn't murdered, but increasingly incapable of looking after herself, and the interdependency of the two women is what's explored, alongside Maria's past life as a peasant in the Ukriane, a forced labourer for the Nazis and a Canadian immigrant. Her labours, sorrows, joys are evoked in the most beautiful prose, in a way that enlarges the spirit.
The second novella is also about a lonely woman but has a more Jamesian twist. An academic (sex unspecified) rents a flat in Kilburn for the summer and becomes drawn into the life of a downstairs neighbour. His/her snobbishness, irritability and assumptions make for fine comedy, which once again becomes something deeper when we learn that it is the prelude to a change of heart. What I particularly enjoyed was the way Messud allowed her narrator to be so obviously unpleasant and difficult at times. Too few authors take this risk.
This is probably the best work of fiction I've read so far this year. It won't please you unless you're prepared to rise to Messud's level of seriousness and wit, but if you do you're in for an unexpected pleasure. I've now ordered her other novels too.