Friday, August 9, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud



by Claire Messud
Knopf, 2013
272 pages


Character likability is getting a lot of buzz these days, but it never factors into my reading. I think a truly good writer can make the reader (at least this reader) care about characters they don't particularly like. A character like Nora Eldridge, for example. She is the woman upstairs.
We're not the madwomen in the attic - they get lots of play, one way or another. We're the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddam tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We're completely invisible. I thought it wasn't true, or not true of me, but I've learned I am no different at all. The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn.  
As we learn in the novel's opening paragraph, she is angry.
I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl, I'm a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody's boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parent's shit and my brother's shit, and I'm not a girl anyhow, I'm over forty fu**ing years old, and I'm good at my job and I'm great with kids and I held my mother's hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone - every day mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it's pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say "Great Artist" on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say "such a good teacher/daughter/friend" instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FU@K YOU ALL.
In a nutshell, this novel is about Nora, who has come to understand her position as "the woman upstairs", falling in love with an entire family (each member individually and the three of them as a group), and the eventual consequences. I loved it.

Messud's novel satisfies on many levels and was truly an extraordinary reading experience. Every character is fascinating and, Nora especially, is quite deep. My book club could spend hours discussing her. As the plot slowly unfolds, it becomes obvious that this is a novel of substance. It's both intelligent and insightful. The writing is superb. In fact, I'll stop right here and leave you with a few more quotes.
"I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you're taught to eat your greens before you have dessert. But it turns out that's a rule for girls and sissies, because the mountain of greens is of Everest proportions, and the bowl of ice cream at the far end of the table is melting a little more with each passing second. There will be ants on it soon." 
"It doesn't ever occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable."
"It's the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate. Even when people try to say things, they say them poorly, or obliquely, or they outright lie, sometimes because they're lying to you, but as often because they're lying to themselves."
"Above all, in my anger, I was sad. Isn't that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying - valiantly, fruitlessly - to eradicate." 
My rating:



source: borrowed from the library

28 comments:

  1. To be quite honest I kinda like reading about characters that I don't personally like. As long as the characterization is GOOD, it's almost more fun. I don't hang out with unlikable people in my real life so hey, why not hang with some jerks in my literary life? ;)

    I keep meaning to get to this one, thanks for the reminder!

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    1. Jennifer - I seem to be on a streak of unlikable characters this summer... and I don't mind one bit either!

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  2. This sounds fantastic! I don't get why people feel like they have to like a character to love a book. Scarlett O'Hara isn't all that likeable but Gone With the Wind is fantastic!

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    1. Kathy - It really is... Nora is such an interesting character. I've never read Gone with the Wind, but really need to soon!

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  3. Looking forward to try this one!

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    1. Andi - Can't wait to hear what you think!

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  4. Wow! Really? I've seen such widely different opinions on this one. I guess I don't necessarily have to love my characters but there have been times when I find them so slimy and nasty that I don't want to know anything about them. Not sure how I'd feel about this woman, but one review got pretty frustrated with her bitching. EW certainly loved this one. I've not eliminated it from the maybe pile yet!

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    1. Sandy - When reviews are all over the place, like they are with this book, it usually makes me want to read it even more! Did you know the audio is narrated by Cassandra Campbell? She's so good, I'm almost tempted to reread on audio...

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  5. I thought the writing was really good, and Nora wasn't nearly so unsympathetic as I expected from hearing reviews about the book. She didn't have much sense of humor about herself, but she was fairly self-aware, and I liked hearing about her art.

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    1. Jenny - You know, I ended up having a lot more sympathy for Nora than I though I would. She certainly didn't have much of a sense of humor... such a serious woman.

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  6. Hi, JoAnn--
    I'm so glad you found The Woman Upstairs to be a worthwhile read. I can't remember if you mentioned this or not. Did you read Messud's The Emperor's Children? By the end of the novel, I determined that it was the most profound novel I'd read in several years.

    It's wonderful that you're managing to squirrel away the time this summer to read some wonderful books. I've been noticing you're really focused with your reading during the past few weeks, which I have not.

    Judith

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    1. Judith - I have not read The Emperor's Children, but did pick up a copy a couple of weeks ago at the library book sale. I'd like to read it before the end of the year.

      Unfortunately, August is not turning out to be a very good reading month for me. Here it is the 10th already and I have yet to finish a book!

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  7. Okay, I've been going back and forth about this one. My library has it on audio, and I love Campbell, which is a plus. After your review, I think I'll give it a try.

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    1. Carrie - Cassandra Campbell is one of my favorite narrators... I'm sure her voice would only add to the reading experience!

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  8. I've seen a variety of opinions on this one but I have a feeling it will suit me, on the wishlist it goes!

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    1. Lovely Treez - Bloggers seem to be split on this book, but I had a feeling it would be one I'd enjoy. Will be curious to see what you think!

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  9. I turned to goodreads and put this directly on my list. What a fantastic review. Thanks so much.

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    1. Col - I hope you love it, too, but beware... opinions vary widely with this one!

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  10. I clicked your link so I could Pin this book, and noticed the age range was 1-8. I think someone goofed!

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    1. Vicki - Yes, that's definitely a mistake! Not at all the appropriate age range...

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  11. I like the quotes you selected. I did enjoy this one, but you clearly hit a home run with it.

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    1. Diane - I really loved this one. Want to read The Emperor's Children now.

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  12. Oh, I like that opening paragraph. I'm with you, I don't have to like a character, I just need to have some kind of feeling about them and it sounds like that would happen with this one.

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    1. Lisa - Nora wasn't totally unlikable. I ended up having much more sympathy for her than I expected.

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  13. This one has gotten a lot of good reviews. I like that you found it so satisfying. These days. I seem to be looking at books that I would not normally pick up and they are surprising me.

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    1. Ti - I love when a book surprises me. Sounds like being more adventurous in your reading choices has paid off!

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  14. Five stars and Casandra Campbell? Sold!

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    1. Les - This was such a great book in print, but with Cassandra Campbell narrating, my reread will definitely be the audio!

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