April 22, 2014

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: Review

Pin It

woman upstairsNora is angry. So very angry. Why is she so mad? Well, she’s about to tell you. It all started about 5 years before. Nora was going through a mid-life crisis. She was dissatisfied with her life. Her mother died of ALS a few years before that. Nora was a teacher but wanted to be an artist. She was heading nowhere, when the Shahids enter her life.

First she meets Reza, a student of hers; then after an incident at school, she meets Sirena. Sirena is everything Nora imagined herself being. An artist. A real artist. Celebrated and successful. Being an artist, wife and mother, comes naturally to Sirena. For years, Nora put off working on her art, then Sirena offered to share a space with her. Nora became a part of the Shahids life. It seemed as if they needed her as much as she needed them, until suddenly they don’t.

Years later, Nora learns something that starts a fire in her- “a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire.” And there we are, at the beginning again.

There was a once a question of Nora’s “"likeability” and whether or not she’d be a good friend. Why does that matter? She’s a person like any other that you would meet in a novel like this, male or female. She has a story to tell, and I wanted to hear it. I didn’t ask myself if she was a nice person. It was irrelevant. Why was Nora angry? What happened? I wanted to know the answers.

I did find Nora to be a frustrating person. I didn’t know what it was that she wanted. Maybe she didn’t either. For some time, I thought Nora just didn’t have the opportunities, like the main character in The Mountain and the Valley who never gets to leave his family farm, but that wasn’t it. Nora tried on many hats in her life. I was jealous of the things she got to do. I never had the choices she had. Eventually, she comes right back to her home town and although she doesn’t marry, she falls into traditional gender roles: dutiful daughter, teacher (to small children!) and good friend. The Shahids are a self-absorbed family who use Nora’s loneliness for their own ends. How much of that does Nora allow because she wants to be part of their (in her mind) glamorous world?

Maybe I’m not a single woman, but I can still see myself in Nora. I’m around her age and not long ago I felt anxious about my age and the things I hadn’t done yet. I feel guilty for saying No to people. I’m good at finding excuses for not doing the things I want to do that scare me. I get jealous. However, I’m learning to let go of things as I get older and the things that bothered me in my twenties don’t bother me as much now. There are things I wish I had done differently, but I’m mostly happy with how my life turned out. Why couldn’t Nora find something that made her happy?

The ending is difficult to discuss. The reason for Nora’s anger isn’t revealed until the last half dozen pages or so. The reader is left hanging. What is Nora going to do about it? She definitely seems like she’s going to do something, but what is that something? I was torn. Did I really want to know? Or should it just be left to the imagination of the reader? What would you do? That seems to be what Messud is asking.

alison doesn't want to know

I can’t stop thinking about The Woman Upstairs. I was swept up in Nora’s story. It’s not like a great adventure or anything but I couldn’t put it down. I cringed at some of the things she did. She didn’t make the best decisions but I still felt sympathy for her. It helped that I found Sirena and her husband insufferable.

If you have read it, I highly recommend that you do. If you have, what did you think of the ending? Did you see it coming? Were you happy that it ended where it did?

15 comments :

  1. I think frustrating characters are a sign of great writing. This book sounds outstanding! I'm very curious about Nora and her anger now.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This one doesn't sound like it's for me. I don't think I would enjoy a book where the protagonist is unhappy for most of the book. I love dysfunction, and yes, sometimes there is unhappiness in that but I like to read about those quiet heroes that are miserable yet figure it out. You know?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She's a complicated character, that's for sure.

      Delete
  3. I read it last year and I wish I were as taken with it. The prose itself was very good. I don't mind an unlikeable narrator. I liked the beginning and loved the ending but I found most of what lay between dull and plodding. I thought it would have made a terrific short story, maybe a novella, but as a novel, so much seemed like filler.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Often I like a slow middle as long as it's well written. This one worked for me.

      Delete
  4. I listened to it and liked it. (Did I tell you my story of the audiobook expiring from my iphone with 1 hour left to listen? The big ending, which I knew there was one, just not what happened. It took me another 2 weeks to get a CD copy to listen to. So frustrating!) Anyway, the reader did a great job of getting Nora's frustration and, almost apathy, but then the bursts of anger! Such great use of the F word. The anger just simmering under the surface. I liked it, and I think a lot was, as you said, how Sirena and her husband were insufferable. And their art - so pretentious. But then Nora's miniature sounded finicky as well. I think part of why I kind of liked/pitied Nora was that she was my age, and I could identify in some ways. It was a book that stuck with me as well. Great review Chris!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh no, how annoying! I bet this was great as an audiobook though.

      Delete
  5. I quite liked The Woman Upstairs -- certainly more than I expected to. When I finished it, I thought less about the story itself, and more about Claire Messud's writing, which was lovely. The story, the ideas, didn't stick with me the way I expected them to; a year or so out, I'm mainly left with a few good quotes and a vague positive feeling that Messud wrote such an angry, angry heroine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I enjoyed her writing too. I'll have to look for more from her.

      Delete
  6. I still haven't read this yet. It's not that Nora may be an unlikable character that gets me, it is more the sense that not much happens. Still, it is Messud and has won lots of praise so I will get to it one of these days. Thanks for your review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, not a lot happens, just a woman living her life, but I had to find out why she was so angry.

      Delete
  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a great review! I'm going to check this out. I think that saying no to people is hard for some people at any age, but you have me intrigued!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I'm really looking forward to this one, mostly because it has generated much debate. People seem to love it or hate it and that's always intriguing.....

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for visiting! Please leave a comment. I've disabled Anonymous comments since I've had a barrage of Anon spam lately. Sorry about that.
Also, if you leave a legit comment but it contains a spammy link, it will not be published.

nrelate