The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

As of next week on Monday’s something slightly different is coming to Savidge Reads. I had planned to start it today however I wanted to get my thoughts on Clare Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ out into the ether before it is talked about on my favourite book show, Australia’s ‘The Book Club’, tomorrow. It is a book I am somewhat confused about, so I really can’t wait for the show.

Virago Books, 2013, hardback, 301 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the very first line of ‘The Woman Upstairs’ we are taken into the head of Nora Eldridge. From the outside she is one of life’s good people who everyone thinks is lovely, she is a teacher after all and she cared for her mother through her terminal illness, yet no one really takes the time to actually befriend her. Once we are inside her head, as the reader is, it becomes clear that still waters run deep and Nora is a woman who has been good but had also spent years of her life getting very, very angry.

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”

Why is Nora so angry? Well to tell you that would give quite a lot away, but I will say that in part it is because she is aware she has naturally become one of life’s wallflowers but also when the Shadid family come into her life, when Reza becomes one of her students, Nora experiences a side of life she gas never seen before, she becomes useful and a trusted friend to both his father, Skandar, and also his mother, Sirena, who is an artist something Nora only ever got to the point she teaches it rather than exhibits it. It is through this friendship that Nora at once flowers and strangely starts to unravel.

Yet like with Nora and her complexities and the fact she is really at odds with herself and those around her, becoming something of a contradiction, so is ‘The Woman Upstairs’ as a book itself. It is one that I found utterly compelling and fascinating, then rather timid and (I hate to say it) a bit dull and boring in parts. In fact very like Nora all over, so maybe that was the point and I missed it, which could easily be the case.

“Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones that are too damn foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish. What do I mean? I mean the second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get too my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly gone – they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and how their hair looks! In the third grade. The care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics.”

The rage and anger that Nora expresses in the first chapter made the book utterly compelling and I thought ‘ooh this is going to be a great dark outpouring here’, yet every great first chapter really needs the rest of the book to live up to it and keep the momentum and as I read on the book held its own for the first third and then I just found the middle section really, really monotonous. I felt like Messud had lost the fire of Nora and the passion she had to put this voice out there and so started to use Nora and Sirena to talk about art and what it means to the individual and the masses. None of which I could really have given a toss about, and with the right voice I should have, I just found myself wanting Nora to get bloody furious again and do something with all that fury.

“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 shrivelled 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.”  

Instead what happened seemed to be a concoction of what I had read before. Nora is very, very like Barbara from ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and I have read the ‘lonely spinster befriends the family’ routine before, Messud even throws in a clichéd twist that you might spot from the start yet hope the author won’t use and then does. Yet then oddly in the final third of the book things start to pick up again as the menace that brims through the first third looks like it might come to fruition. Only it doesn’t and whilst I sort of liked the twist at the end I felt like really it was how we left Nora and what she might do next that would have made an even better story, if that makes sense?

It felt a bit like all the promise, in the form of the anger, that had been in the beginning of the book sort of died out in the explanation of it and yet the anger that I found so utterly refreshing only came back at the end and then… well, who knows. I guess I was a bit disappointed. I also wonder if I simply expected more drama or something darker because that is what most authors do and that, like many reviews I have since read, I should actually embrace the fact the book encapsulated the reality of the situation instead.

Either way, as you can probably tell, there are lots of elements that make ‘The Woman Upstairs’ a really interesting read. You may find yourself like me, someone who loved the rage and got a bit bogged down in the middle, or be someone who marvels at the realities the book gives you. It is one book that I am almost 100% certain would make a brilliant book club choice, hence why I am so excited about seeing tomorrows ‘The Book Club’ and particularly what Marieke Hardy makes of it, and one that will cause much debate which is always a good thing.

10 Comments

Filed under Claire Messud, Review, Virago Books

10 responses to “The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

  1. Peter Turner

    Simon,it’s very good to receive your postings again after your recent,very sad times.We’ve been thinking about you, your family and of course Granny S.a very great deal.You’ll always miss your Gran hugely so I just want to say thanks for taking the time to keep us all posted.Very best regards,Peter

  2. Enjoyed this. Am half way through this post wanting to finish it by Tues evening too for ABC Book Club show (Aus) but won’t in end. Have been too busy with The Third Policeman also for that show. Will do my own thoughts on the Woman Upstairs in a few days if you’re interested. Cheers, Enjoy the show. I LOVE it. I think Marike will tear this book to pieces. Not sure of her thoughts on 3rd Policeman.

  3. Does sound like a wasted opportunity of a book – the reviews I have read say mainly that. Thanks for the review!

  4. I agree with much of what you say, but totally disagree with Kaggsybookishramblings above. I think you’re correct about the overall dramatic arc, starts strong, gets a bit dull, strong finish, and then leaves you wanting more, but I’d argue this is a strength of the book not a weakness. It needs to get dull in the middle for the final betrayal to really pack the punch I felt it did.

    I don’t know what happens in the end, but on the other hand, I KNOW what’s going to happen. What I think will happen is probably not what you think will happen, but that’s also the point and part of the fun. I like that Messud lets the reader write their own ending to the story the way she does.

    This is a book that tests the reader, that’s for sure, but I think it’s also one that rewards the reader who passes the test and makes it to the “end.”

    This is the third book of hers that I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed and admired all three and look forward to the next one.

    I’ll have to see if I can get this Australian show you mention. We have no good book talk shows in American. Not a one. 😦

  5. queenofthepark

    Certainly a controversial novel. I had mixed feelings but was so glad to have read it. And thanks for spreading the word about First Tuesday Book Club. I never miss an episode.

  6. I’m intrigued by this book after reading your review, and CB James’s comment in particular. I’ve not read any of her books, but would certainly like to read this one when the paperback comes out.

  7. I thought Nora’s rage was such a wonderful part of this book, although I had some problems with the way it was executed. It definitely made me want to pick up more Claire Messud books.

  8. the bibliomane

    By coincidence I got an email from my library this morning to tell me that my reserved copy of this has just come in..am now even more interested in seeing what its all about..

  9. Pingback: The Breathers Between Books… | Savidge Reads

  10. This is almost exactly how I felt about The Woman Upstairs. That first chapter blew me away and when everything died out I really just held on to find out what the reveal would be in the end. And then Nora was back again! I still don’t know what my overall feeling is (and I read this several months ago now), but I do tend to tell people it’s worth reading…if nothing else for that explosive first bit.

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