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The Woman Upstairs (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – February 4, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, May 2013: If this ferocious novel were to have a subtitle, it would be: No More Ms. Nice Guy. "How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that," barks Nora Eldridge, our 42-year-old protagonist, an aesthete-wannabe who has slid into the bourgeois suburban life of a schoolteacher. Solipsistically lonely, Nora befriends--a polite term here for what is more like "stalks"--the artist-mother of one of her students; she also insinuates herself into the life of the woman's husband. That trouble will ensue is obvious to everyone but Nora, who for all her paranoia, is stunningly blind about using and being used. But in the end, maybe Nora doesn’t even care what she has suffered; at least, for once, she has lived, as she will continue to do in the minds of all of us who've read about her. --Sara Nelson --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* In this acid bath of a novel, the superlative Messud (The Emperor’s Children, 2006) immolates an iconic figure—the good, quiet, self-sacrificing woman—with exhilarating velocity, fury, and wit while taking on the vicissitudes of family life and the paradoxes of art. Nora, our archly funny, venomous, and raging 42-year-old narrator, recounts her thirty-seventh year, when she was living alone and teaching third grade in Boston after the death of her profoundly frustrated mother. Nora longs to make art but hasn’t mustered the necessary conviction. Enter the Paris-based Shahids. Reza, her new student, is a magnet for bullies stirred up by post-9/11 xenophobia. His Palestinian Lebanese father, Skandar, is a prominent academic spending a year at Harvard. His Italian mother, Sirena, is an artist in need of a studio and a studio mate. She promptly recruits Nora. A confident and passionate conduit for mythological powers, Sirena creates “lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse.” Unworldly and lonely Nora, a veritable daughter of Ibsen, builds dollhouses—small, painstakingly accurate replicas of the rooms occupied by women artists ranging from Emily Dickinson to Edie Sedgwick. Messud’s scorching social anatomy, red-hot psychology, galvanizing story, and incandescent language make for an all-circuits-firing novel about enthrallment, ambition, envy, and betrayal. A tour de force portraying a no longer invisible or silent “woman upstairs.” --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The criticism I think that is without merit is that the character isn't likable. The character is an accurate human portrait and if any of us were laid to bare the way this character honestly expresses her feelings and thoughts, I think we too would be less than likable.
Years ago I heard this woman explain an entire attitude of certain women as the ``smugly married." It's easy to look down your nose at her if you have all the adornments of female success, the most important of which is that someone has found you sexually desirable enough to marry you. And once you have children, the deal is sealed. You are woman, hear you roar!
But if you got overly fussy, maybe thought something better was coming, or there was a split or almost no suitors and the shadows grow long on the dock, you do sense that you will probably never marry and most certainly now, never have children. This is of course the reality for Nora, the now spinster school teacher, whose mother who loved her is dead and whose aging father needs her. Nora is the utility person. Life's bat boy. The filler of water bottles and cleaner of equipment but never gets to play the game. The center of no one's life but the agent of many lives. A person of talent unexpressed and un-honed which time will turn to mediocrity because it was simply never developed. A person so inconsequential that those she thinks are closest to her will humiliate her if it serves their own ends. And she's angry because now she knows all this with certainty.
Naturally, she has lied to herself about this truth. It's called coping. And this is where the writer I think advances beyond a lot of readers. We all lie to ourselves about some critical truth in our lives. Unless you have caught yourself in some lie on which your identity stands, and then have had some unexpected circumstance bring you right up against that lie so powerfully that it can literally knock you to your knees, you may simply lack the experience to fully appreciate this book. A lot of people don't like the book I think because most of us just keep whistling right to the grave.
Spoilers: so what if Nora is angry at both the beginning and the end? This narrative book-ended with anger only seems like some gossipy story that'd she'd tell to her friend Didi after a few drinks and then forget about in a month. Because Nora, for all her emotions, seems ultimately impotent, a slave to her anger as much as she'd been a slave to her 'status' as a Woman Upstairs. The very fact that she'd resigned herself to this Type, and that it was the very title of the brook and a repeated term used by Nora in her most self-pitying moments, was the most frustrating aspect of her complete powerlessness. Maybe the book was supposed to make the reader angry FOR her, especially because, were Nora to take some action (finally) and assert her own will in some way, we would be satisfied that justice was served, or at least the ending humiliation ameliorated by Nora's personal response, her taking the anger and transforming it, Phoenix-like, into something constructive. Her merely declaring her rage to an invisible reader, especially when we know what an intense and deluded inner life she leads, reads as kind of, 'yeah, sure, see you next semester, Miss E.'
I am 26 and I could appreciate the sentiments behind the book, even if I couldn't, or didn't want to, relate to them. It seemed, to me, a lot like both art projects described in the book: emotional, even sentimental, a bit confusing, prosaic, and ultimately artless. There was zero "Oh, wow," moments for me. But if you're a middle aged or approaching middle aged woman, I think this would be a good book to read. Maybe even more so for my age group, as a warning of sorts. Don't let yourself end up here.