29 April 2013

Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

It's difficult to summarize a book like Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, or more precisely, to summarize it and make it sound as interesting as it really is.

Nora is a woman on the cusp of turning forty who fancied herself an artist during her high school and college years, and is thus dismayed with herself two decades later when she is still teaching elementary school. That is, until a certain family moves into town and she falls a little bit in love with all of them and with the potential that each one--mother, father, and son--represents to Nora.

Nora narrates the book in first person, looking back on her life from her formative years through college and onward, but spending most of her time relating in precise detail what her mundane life was like Before and After.  That is, before and after Reza Shahid becomes one of her students and she gets to know his parents, Skandar and Sirena, a couple whose Lebanese-Italian background, by way of France, seems exciting and exotic even in worldly Cambridge, MA.

I had never read Claire Messud before, so I came to this book with no particular expectations, and I ended up being blown away with her insight and sense of language.  The writing is frequently gorgeous and my advance reading copy is full of dog-eared pages. I think what stands out most, however, is Nora's voice.  Nora is a woman whose slow-burning anger has reached a tipping point, and the narrative sears with a rage that is so incandescent that it illuminates her specific character but also Every Woman.  It feels thoroughly modern, but as my coworker Caitlin rightly pointed out to me in a discussion one day, there's also a very classic, almost timeless, feel to it. As if The Woman Upstairs, given a change of setting, could just as easily have been penned by Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf or any woman whose life is circumscribed by her time.

Nora's voice is searing, to be sure, but she casts her same critical gaze inward, too, so this is not just a world-done-me-wrong narrative, but also a hard look at the choices she has made for herself, learning to live with those choices, and deciding which ones are worth the time, effort, or courage to change.

Some sample passages for the flavor of the writing, including some where she invokes the Reader, like Jane Eyre does in her narrative:

"I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I was in love with her--which I was--but in a romantic way--which I was not. You're thinking, how would I know whether I was romantically in love, I whose apparently nonexistent love life would suggest a prudish vacancy, uterus shriveled like a corn husk and withered dugs for breasts. You're thinking that whatever else she does, the Woman Upstairs with her cats and her pots of tea and her Sex and the City reruns and her goddamn Garnet Hill catalog, the woman with her class of third graders, and her carefully pearly smile--whatever else she manages, she doesn't have a love life to speak of. Just because something is invisible doesn't mean it isn't there. At any given time, there are a host of invisibles floating among us.  There are clairvoyants to see ghosts; but who sees the invisible emotions, the unrecorded events? Who is it that sees love, more evanescent than any ghost, let alone can catch it? Who are you tell me that I don't know what love is (69)?"

Regarding herself and the members of the Shahid family: "Each of them wanted something, and their wanting made me believe that I was capable. Not that I was an extraordinary woman, exactly, but only not exactly that. Something quite like that. Which always since childhood I had secretely wanted to believe--no: had always in my most deeply secret self believed, knowing that the believing itself was a necessary precondition...My lifelong secret certainty of specialness, my precious hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them, and feared them too: feared the power they might wield over me, and simply on account of that fear, almost certainly would (119)."

And this little bit, which somehow reminds me of part of Eliot's Four Quartets: "With the distance I have now, I can see that it was one small thought among all the other thoughts that drift like dust motes through a cluttered mind. But it was a thought I made an object, and held on to and turned over and over in my hand, as if it were an amulet, as if it gave meaning to what had come before; and holding on to it changed everything again (135)."

"I was happy. I was Happy, indeed. I was in love with love and every lucky parking spot or particularly tasty melon or unexpectedly abbreviated staff meeting seemed to me not chance but an inevitable manifestation of the beauty of my life, a beauty that I had, on account of my lack of self-knowledge, been up till now unable to see (141)."

This book was a fine, fine read and if there is any justice in this literary world, it will make both the year-end Best Of 2013 lists as well as the awards circuit when the times come.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided to me at my request by my sales rep. Knopf published it last week. 


  1. I wasn't a super huge fan of Emperor's Children, but it looks like I'm going to have to check this one out & give her another shot!

    1. I'd heard similar things about Emperor's Children but hadn't read it, so I was very pleasantly surprised with how good I thought this one was.

  2. Sounds like it will have to go on the list! Great review.

  3. The "pernicious I." Oh Lord Emily, you've warped me.

    1. Well, technically it's the "present pernicious." I really don't care for present tense narration, but I don't mind first person POV. A lot of folks don't care for it, though.

  4. I feel like I had heard of this book, but I didn't really know what it was about. Thanks for sharing your love for it!


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