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.