Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle for iPad
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language and brief sexual references

When I first started blogging, nearly a decade ago, I remember the pleasure of putting my little ones down for a nap and sitting at my computer to write a post. This was back in the day when your average everyday mommy blog post might get 20 or 30 comments, especially if it was shocking or funny in some way. And I was hungry for every one of those comments, so I exploited my children, posting pictures of them doing embarrassing things. I pointed out the faults of my husband and my mother, laughing all the way to the comment section. And yes, there were times when I'd get a phone call from my mom, or Eddie would read my post when he got home from work that night and they would be bugged by what I'd said about them. But I was quick to point out that I was creating a persona, and emphasizing details that would resonate with readers, and that it really had very little to do with them, and I was going to do what I wanted to do for the sake of my ART! I'll come to this later in my review.

Nora is a third-grade teacher teaching in Cambridge. She used to have dreams of becoming an artist, of becoming a mother, but instead, at 38, she has become a woman upstairs-- well-behaved, quiet, doing what people expect of her. She didn't go to art school because her parents thought it impractical. She didn't marry the guy who was perfect for her in every way except that she didn't love him. She dedicated her early thirties to caring for her dying mother. And now, her life is small, circumscribed, and predictable.

And then Reza Shahid becomes her student. His family has come to the US for one year for his father's visiting professorship at Harvard. Reza's a beautiful boy with a French accent, and immediately becomes a target for bullying. Nora reaches out to Reza's parents, and soon finds herself sharing an artist studio with Sirena, and discussing politics and the world on nightly walks with Skandar. Suddenly, Nora's life isn't so small. But exciting that small room upstairs also makes Nora vulnerable, capable of both love and exploitation.

The prose of The Woman Upstairs is clear and precise, the characters well-drawn, and the relationships between Nora and all three of the Shahids, all of whom she has fallen in love with, is touching and believable. But Nora tells the story in retrospect, with several years distance from that perfect year. She alludes throughout the story to a horrible even which changed how she saw the actions of the year when she looked back on it, and here's where the story is most interesting to me, because when I look at this "horrible event," it does feel shocking, but perhaps not as terrible and life-altering as Nora sees it, so I'm unsure if I'm just an exploitative person myself, or if Messud is trying to further show how hemmed in Nora's life is-- that is is, despite this one year, truly a woman upstairs. 

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