Urbane Renewal

Claire Messud, the best-selling author of The Emperor’s Children, discovers the grown-up pleasures of her adolescent playground

Cheryl Carlin

Before ever I had set foot in Boston, it lived in my imagination as a natural home. It was the place in the United States where, long before my birth, my parents had been happiest, when my French father was a graduate student at Harvard and my Canadian mother worked at secretarial jobs that sounded, to my childhood ear, impossibly glamorous, at the Browne & Nichols School and at Houghton Mifflin.

Their young lives, in a tiny apartment on a cul-de-sac at the louche outer limits of Cambridge—on the Somerville line, no less—were rendered mythical by their stories: of their condemned apartment building, where everything sagged on the verge of collapse; of Mrs. Nussbaum's convenience store around the corner, where, discreetly, you could place bets on the horses (or was it the dogs?); and of the neighborhood butcher, Savenor's, where my mother might catch a glimpse of the great Julia Child. These places took firm shape in my mind, so that when finally I saw them, when my husband and I moved to Boston with our children in 2003—or rather, more particularly, to Somerville, crossing a line my parents had considered to be the demarcation of civilization's end for over 40 years—I was confused by their imperfect reality. Now, I drive past Savenor's and my parents' beloved Emmons Place every morning as I take my kids to school. My parents' first American home is part of my own quotidian map, of my children's only known world. It gives me the sense, however illusory, that we have deep history in this place.

By 2003, though, the Boston area had another outline in my memory and imagination, one more immediate than as the site of my parents' youth: the city was, for a time, the home of my adolescent self and a place no less unreal for all that. When I was a child, my family lived in Australia and Canada, and finally, when I was 13, in 1980, we returned to the United States. Because my parents thought they might have to move again before my sister and I finished high school, on account of my father's work, they suggested that we go to a boarding school; and while my sister headed off to rural New Hampshire, I chose a school in the southern suburbs of Boston.

For the three years that followed, Boston was my fantasy home, the illusion of adulthood that was attached to, but not part of, my everyday boarding school life. During the week, we roamed our green and sheltered campus as though there were nowhere else—and, in fact, we could have been anywhere at all, so little did we consider the world outside. Mostly we covered the few blocks from the girls' dorms to the classrooms, past the cemetery and back again, although occasionally, in the afternoons, we bestirred ourselves to walk the few extra blocks to the corner where the ice-cream store and the drugstore sat side by side. The purpose of the former was obvious (it was there I developed my lifelong weakness for sweet cream ice cream with peanut butter cups mixed in); the latter was necessary for NoDoz and Dexatrim, which we hoped would keep us hopping and offset the ice cream.

On weekends, though, in gaggles, we headed for town, taking the leisurely walk to the trolley stop in all weather, then the trolley to the train, and then the train into the city. Boston, for us, consisted largely of a few sites, readily accessible by public transport: Newbury Street, Faneuil Hall, Harvard Square and, occasionally, the North End. That said, I remember doggedly marching the banks of the Charles one freezing winter night from Back Bay almost to the science museum and back, in a group of half a dozen escaped, insufficiently muffled boarders, our noses aflame with cold, our eyes stinging, unable to talk, not sure what we were doing but knowing that we didn't want to head back to school until we had to. Our curfew was 11 p.m., and the potential consequences of tardiness were worse than Cinderella's, but we liked to push the limits.

Going home at 9 or 10 was tantamount to failure. The only time I did it willingly was after my first, and perhaps only, real date, with a boy a year my senior, who took me to dinner at an Italian restaurant in the North End—complete with red gingham tablecloths and a candle in a straw-covered wine bottle—and surely couldn't fathom why I would neither converse nor eat my supper; so that eventually, in the hideous, silent awkwardness, he consumed my meal as well as his own and suggested, wearily, that we go home. Boston was the place we all pretended we were grown up—trying to get served alcohol, most successfully at a crêperie in Faneuil Hall and a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square—but somehow, all my pretending hadn't involved thoughts of romance; so that when this pleasant young man asked me out, I felt as though I were being asked to play an unknown and terrifying role. I'm sure I just seemed rude, and would still like, all these years later, to apologize.

Mostly, though, our Boston forays allowed me to indulge exactly the grown-up fantasies I most enjoyed. In groups of three or four, we strolled the length of Newbury Street as if we belonged there, window-shopping at the fanciest places, stopping for lunch in one little café or another, and moving haughtily on.

Only once did my imaginary fashionable self bump up against ugly reality, when I had to purchase a dress for a formal occasion. In what confusion, or delusion, I can't now re-create, I chose the dress department at Bonwit Teller (an institution then, in the grand free-standing building now inhabited by an even fancier shop, Louis Boston), where I discovered, to my chagrin, that there was only one dress that my measly $70 would buy. Still, the romance of a Bonwit Teller dress was too great to relinquish, and it didn't matter that I knew the dress was ugly or that it looked ugly on my ungainly frame (too much sweet cream ice cream, too little Dexatrim). I wore it only once, a knee-length, emerald-green shiny polyester number with blips of red and white, like radioactive tadpoles, swimming across its breadth, the whole given unfortunate shape by imposing shoulder pads that rustled when I moved and a belt, cinched in a bow, around my indelicate middle. Even in the changing room, but certainly when I got it back to my dormitory and realized that I was too ashamed to put the dress on in front of my roommate, I was forced to acknowledge that I was not, alas, the person I had for so long imagined myself to be, the stylish young Newbury Street shopper just waiting to blossom.

Harvard Square was our other main destination, and there, more comfortably, we could pretend we were intellectuals, smoking clove cigarettes in the Algiers coffeehouse and sitting through obscure foreign films at the Orson Welles, the chilly cinema then on Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Central squares. Once, a friend and I found ourselves there enduring an interminable porn flick, two 15-year-old girls surrounded by a scattering of older men, misled by a good review in the countercultural weekly and by the fact—surely a moral good?—that the film was Brazilian. At Oonagh's, a secondhand clothing store just beyond the Harvard Book Store, we actually made purchases, and for many years I kept a men's velvet dressing gown I'd picked up there, even though its navy silk lining was in tatters, because it seemed to me, obliquely, to evoke the sort of life I imagined I should lead.

The Boston of my adolescence had no markets, no bills to pay, no bike rides or backyards—and, most mysteriously, no homes. The boarding school had day students, to be sure, and some of them were my friends, and if I try very hard I can conjure a snippet of a kitchen on Beacon Hill or a bathroom in a house near Harvard Square. There were adventurous, isolated junkets on the subway out to Brookline and Newton, suburbs where the houses seemed dwarfed by foliage, lives of a sort to which I paid no attention at all, having imperiously decided (my parents were then living in similar suburbs, in Connecticut) that they were not for me. I know I visited such houses—Natasha's house, Elsa's house, Meg's house—but I remember nothing about them.

The prejudice, though, remained with me all these years, and against all logic. When house-hunting in Boston several years back, immensely pregnant and with a 2-year-old in tow, I stubbornly refused to consider Brookline or Newton, or in fact anywhere else where the public schools were any good, but instead cleaved willfully to my adolescent dream of who I was (the intellectual in Harvard Square!) and landed as close by as our resources would allow, upon a hill behind Somerville's Union Square, a mile from Harvard Yard, in an all-but-straight line that leads past my parents' grad student digs and the resurrected butcher Savenor's, where the late Julia Child no longer shops but we frequently do.

Unlike my earlier Boston lives, this one is not imaginary. It is bounded by playgrounds and car repairmen, by the endless two-block loop that is all our dachshund with back trouble can manage for her walks. It is a life of delicious mundanity, in which the supermarket run or the weeding of our tiny patch of yard is of recurring and vital importance. For unexpected thrills, we take the ferry to George's Island, across the glistening harbor, and picnic with our children in the ruined fort. It is unglamorous and glorious. If you'd told me, 20 years ago, that I would live in Boston for four years and know barely any more restaurants than when I arrived, I would have blanched. If you'd told me I would go to the symphony, or the opera, or the theater only about once a year and that the only films I would see would be rated G, I would have been horrified. My idea of myself, like my idea of home, was so very different. But Boston proves to be as wonderful a place for a boring real life as it was for an exciting but imaginary one. Until now, I had always contemplated the next move; now, I contemplate how to avoid it; which I think means that Boston is, after all these years, home.

Claire Messud has written three novels and a book of novellas.