Book review: The Woman Upstairs

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read the now-famous interview with Claire Messud before I ever picked up The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer asks Messud about her character Nora: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud responds: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” (She goes on to list many other fictional bad boys of literature.)

Implicit in Messud’s response is the idea that we tend to embrace unlikable male characters—the Humbert Humberts, the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of our fictional worlds—more readily than female ones.

I agree: we readers shouldn’t need our books populated with likable characters. Still, I love so many books because I love the people who inhabit them. Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Laura Ingalls. I don’t know if I wanted to be their friend or if I wanted to be them, but I definitely liked them. I loved them.

But perhaps, as Messud suggests, this is an unsophisticated way of reading. We grow up, we learn to look for more than kinship and friendship in our characters: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Messud says. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” In other words, we don’t have to love them; we have to believe in them.

So I went into The Woman Upstairs knowing that Nora wouldn’t necessarily become my friend. And sure enough, she wasn’t an especially pleasant person to be around for all those pages. Nora describes herself as “the woman upstairs.” She’s not quite the woman in the attic, the one who goes nuts and burns down the house. Nor is she downstairs with all the other characters. She’s the woman down the hall you say hi to but don’t know anything about. In Nora’s case, she’s thirty-seven and already resigned to spinsterhood. She figures life has passed her by.

But there is a bit of irony in Messud’s angry response to the interviewer’s question: The Woman Upstairs is a book about friendship. When Nora befriends the family of one of her pupils, life opens up to her. Friendship awakens her the way love awakens people, shakes them out of old routines and reveals opportunity. So then, the question of whether Nora would make a good friend becomes relevant to the story. Is the family as enthralled with Nora as she is with them?

The book reminds me (and many other reviewers) of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Barbara Covett was a “woman upstairs,” too. It’s difficult to take these self-professed nobodies, push them to the center stage, and expect everyone to watch with rapt attention. Heller pulls it off, giving schoolteacher Barbara enough wit and realness to make her misanthropic views bearable. More than bearable—fascinating and funny.

In The Woman Upstairs, Nora was too much inside her own head, and her voice began to grate on me. (Weirdly, I kept reading her interior monologues with the inflections of Hannibal Lector.) The ideas and themes in the novel captured my attention and imagination, but the details of Nora’s personality and life (she is a popular teacher who loves kids; she’s beautiful; she’s a runner; she’s the “woman upstairs;” she’s a thirty-seven-year-old childless spinster) didn’t add up. Messud doesn’t ask me to like Nora; she wants me to believe in her. I just couldn’t do it.

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Book review: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best book I’ve read all summer! Okay, I know this isn’t saying much. I think I’ve read only twelve books so far. But still. I loved it. I cried at least five times, six if you include this morning when I retold the entire story to my seven-year-old. I choked up when I recounted the ending, and the waterworks started up all over again. She didn’t really get it. Partly because she’s seven and partly because I had to give her a sort of G-rated version of story.

I bought the connection between Eleanor and Park, and I wanted them to be together. It’s a deceptively simple thing for a book to make me do. How many rom-coms have I watched or books have I read that tried to do that and failed? I’m left throwing popcorn at the screen or tossing the book aside, yelling, “You’re all wrong for each other!” or “He’s a jerk! What do you even see in him?” or (most damning) “Who cares?”

I was dreading the ending. [Spoiler alert! Do not read the rest of this review if you don’t want to hear my thoughts on the ending!] I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy.[I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy. (hide spoiler)]

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