Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs

Okay, so what if, instead of making a big deal out of not having time to write a decent review, I just churn out a few posts giving quick impressions of some of the most notable books I've read this year.

Were I to take that approach, I'd have to start by highly recommending Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, but only if you don't mind being disturbed. This book creeps into your head and it lingers. The narrator seems likeable, if fragile, and she's open enough with us about her vulnerability that we trust her. Or at least we do for quite a few chapters. . . . She's angry, though, and from the beginning, we'd be wise to weigh her anger against the circumstances. Who, precisely, is the target. Nora seems to cast considerable blame in several directions -- her mother, father, and brother, for a start, but she's also envious and resentful of her longtime friend's partner.
So much of life has conspired to keep Nora from realizing her potential as an artist, and she worries the past to understand how she's ended up as a grade-school teacher, practicing art on the side. But miraculously, the mother of the exotic, ex-pat, new student in her class, a recognized Artist (and yes, Nora sees that capital A firmly in place) befriends her, offers to share a studio with her. Miraculously, that is, with a bit of engineering by Nora. Gradually, she is thrilled to feel part of the family's life, although aware of the clock ticking on the horizon of their sabbatical year, their eventual return to Europe.

Meanwhile, she brings more discipline to her own art, although she directs much energy towards her new friend's installation and to nestling herself ever deeper into the family's home.  But the dénouement. Ah, what a dénouement. I can't say more for fear of spoiling the novel for you, except to say (since you will know, anyway, from the outset that our narrator tells her story in anger, out of anger) that the dénouement is chilling, bouleversant -- my slip into French justified by the ending's setting, à Paris. This is one you will carry with you for weeks. Tell me about it. . . .

1 comment:

  1. I have a stack of books to read but this one sounds like one for me. I actually have a friend, Nora, who always wanted to be an Artist ( not a hobbyist) and who graduated from Emily Carr at age 55. There are so many books to read! Right now I am in the middle of a biography of Daphne du Maurier that I picked up in Cornwall. Although I vow not to buy them, I can't resist picking up local books in my travels. 23268562

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