by Claire Messud
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