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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.


Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud

"When you're the Woman Upstairs, nobody thinks of you first. Nobody calls you before anyone else, or sends you the first postcard. Once your mother dies, nobody loves you best of all."

This book reminded me why I haven't given up on literary fiction.

The premise sounds like it isn't a lot to work with. Nora is a 37-year-old single third-grade teacher. Through one of her students, Reza, she meets the Shahid family who are in the U.S. for one year while the father, an academic, is visiting faculty at an east coast college. Nora becomes fascinated by, indeed, obsessed, with this family -- first, and foremost, with Sirena, his mother. Sirena is an installation artist of some acclaim, and Nora is a closeted artist who put her dreams on the back burner for a more practical path. This isn't enough to make a book on its own, but the four central characters are absolutely living, breathing people, filled with complexity, shortcomings, and yearnings. The writing is beautiful and vivid as well, the claustrophobic feel of Nora's life perfectly conveyed.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Nora is "likeable" or not. I guess I never stopped to wonder whether she was likeable; I was too busy identifying. I feel that I very easily could have become "the woman upstairs," a single woman who is mostly unremarkable, but who feels herself expand with hope at the slightest change to her life. It's the hope for something different that intoxicates Nora when she meets the Shahid's, the sense that the world is bigger than her job, her town, her apartment. Yes, she projects far too much upon the family, and her obsession does border on the creepy. But as a perpetual outsider, always playing supporting roles in others' lives rather than starring in her own, to me it was understandable how she could get so carried away within her mind, how she could make what she had much more than what it really was.

Aside from its smart, realistic, and compassionate portrayal of a woman on the fringe of her own life and dreams, the book also takes a close look at the moveable line separating fantasy from reality and the temptation to live too much on the wrong side of it. I entered several quotes about this theme in my <a href=<"http://laceylouwagie.booklikes.com">booklikes</a> journal because many of them captured traps I've fallen into in my own life, in particular:

"In spite of myself, for several months--and in some less pressing way, for several years--this state of fantasy was ... the country to which I largely decamped and in which I preferred to stay."

I don't want to give away the ending, except to say that I'm so glad to have read a literary fiction piece that can make an incisive point without killing off one of the characters to do it. Bravo, Claire Messud.

This book isn't for everyone, as you'll see by scanning the many reviews that harp on Nora for being "developmentally stunted" or "pathetic," and I'd carefully consider who I'd share it with, because it's one of those books that got that close to my core.

[After all this praise, I gave it four stars instead of five because it took some time to get going for me, and also because it seemed as though the author may not have known any third-grade teachers particularly well -- it seemed Nora went to and from school as if it were a job she could "leave at work," whereas all the teachers I know are bringing home lesson plans, assignments to grade, etc., nearly every night.]