Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs Oh yes, this is great storytelling. This wonderfully atmospheric novel-in-miniature is more like a giant short story with a surprise ending. There are a limited number of characters—one, really—whom we get to see in great detail. And there is a creepy sense of foreboding we get right from the start. This story features a confused and angry woman who did all the right things but found her life empty anyway. Well, welcome to adulthood, my little pretty.

Boston. A would-be artist teaches elementary school. She is unmarried at thirty-seven years old. Time is ticking over. One of the children in her class is son of Sirena and Shakhar, both of whom enjoy their very special child and also have lives in which they strive every day to create or explain the world.

I loved what one reviewer said about the “woman upstairs” being one’s head and the “downstairs” being one’s heart and genitals. And I was riveted by the talk about art, the creative process and moments of inspiration. And by golly, I wanted to shake that perfectly capable Woman Upstairs to her senses.

[I knew, right from the moment Nora, our narrator, told us about the cameras set up to capture reactions to “Wonderland” that those cameras were going to capture something no one expected. I waited, and every time the cameras were mentioned, I got a thrill, and the impetus to carry on. I was perplexed, then, that the story was almost done and nothing had been mentioned, but then…there it was.

I would have thought that Nora’s sexual encounter with Sirena’s husband would have been more distressing to see on film, but I am not one to argue about niceties. If watching a public display of her masturbation scene was thing that got her up off the couch, I’m all for it. She didn’t kill anyone: herself or her friends, though death hung over the novel like a pall. She made miniatures of suicide scenes, for goodness’ sake! and talked often about her mother’s death. Instead, as though giving voice to a curse, she swears to start living. I had to laugh. I certainly hope she does start grabbing life with both hands because we get one chance at this, and her time was rapidly running out.

And no, I am not surprised that this was the one film among five that “sold out.” I don’t think her friends liked her less for knowing that about her. I also don’t think they could have convinced Nora to leave it in the film, had she known about it, which is probably why they didn’t tell her. But maybe they could have, to be fair. Nora’s masturbation scene was one of the early, really true, unscripted reactions to the scenery and since most of us seek the real thing in works of art, and I think Messud got this part right.]

Good job, Messud!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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