Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs is so redolent of a Remains of the Day-type character in its treatment of Nora, a woman who exists on the edges of other peoples’ lives, that I rarely thought of Nora by name. Was she a third grade teacher living a quiet, orderly life? Or was she the mad woman in the attic alluded to in the title’s homage to Bertha in Jane Eyre? Nora, herself makes the comparison, “People don’t want to worry about the Woman Upstairs,” she reflects. “Not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.”  

So Nora lives an invisible life, yet we know she’s angry. She’s told us so on the very first page of the novel. “How angry am I?  You don’t want to know.  Nobody wants to know about that. 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 parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand while she was dying and I speak to my father on the telephone – every day, mind you. . . 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. . .”

Thus Nora begins her story by telling of the time five years previously when everything shifted after she fell in love with the hybrid Palestinian/Lebanese/Italian Shahid family when they arrived in Boston from Paris so father, Skandar, an academic star, could spend a year at Harvard. Nora met them through their adorable son Reza, her newest student, who was attacked by bullies.  Reza’s mother, the aptly named Sirena, a “real” artist, attracted Nora with her take-charge manner and the two soon shared studio space where Sirena created an immense, alternate world. Meanwhile, Nora was building tiny boxes, rooms, containing the lives of women artists. That she began with Emily Dickinson and spent hours on the craft of carefully varnishing Dickinson’s floor rather than on creating anything original spoke to her need to focus more on Sirena than on anything of her own. Soon she and Sirena were lingering over gourmet picnics and seemingly intimate conversations while a foreboding sense of what might be ahead permeated the rose water-filled air.  

Sirena described the family’s trip back to Paris for the holidays, “I have a history there, and friends, and colleagues; and home is where my boys are, of course.  But do you know this idea of the imaginary homeland? Once you set out from shore on your little boat, once you embark, you’ll never truly be at home again.  What you’ve left behind exists only in your memory, and your ideal place becomes some strange imaginary concoction of all you’ve left behind at every stop.”  As Nora sat listening, it was evident that she wasn’t yet ready to leave the shore, to embark on her own life and that her identity was evolving into a strangely imaginary concoction unmoored by reality.

At times I was impatient with Nora’s lack of clarity and her inability to get out of the quicksand of her life.  I wanted to skip past Messud’s brilliant turns of phrase and get to that black dog I knew was lurking around the next corner. Regardless, all my expectations left me emotionally unprepared for the awakening, the absolute tour de force of a climax that the last pages delivered. What, I wonder, as I contemplate this novel, exactly what, is unleashed when self-deception gives way to anger?  This brilliant novel of envy, desire, invisibility, betrayal, and emergence is one requiring patience as it evolves slowly yet assuredly until it suddenly bursts from its cocoon.

Summing it Up: Read Messud’s quiet portrait of an invisible woman who slowly emerges from her cocoon for its shimmering phrases and for the seamless manner in which it builds toward the shattering denouement. Stick with it; while the characters are difficult to like and there are times when it could have moved more quickly – the ending, oh, yes, the ending is worth it.

Rating:  4 stars

Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date:  April 30, 2013

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