Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

"The woman upstairs" by Claire Messud (Virago, 2013)

Nora, a 39 year-old spinster who teaches young children, is resigning herself to middle age. Her mother's dead from cancer, and her father needs frequent visits. "down every corridor is another corridor, and the Fun House isn't fun anymore and it isn't even funny, but there doesn't seem to be a door marked EXIT" (p.4). "Life is about deciding what matters. It's about the fantasy that determines the reality. Have you ever asked yourself whether you'd rather fly or be invisible? ... As for being invisible, it makes things more real. You walk into a room where you are not, and you hear what people say, unguardedly ... And especially now that I've learned that I really am invisible, I need to stop wanting to fly" (p.7-8).

Then a charming new boy, Reza, appears in her class. Reza's mother, Sirena, is an artist, which revives Nora's interest. The 2 of them start to share a studio. Nora creates a scaled-down bedroom of Emily Dickinson, Sirena an ambitious Wonderland for which she enlist's Nora's help. Emotions deepen. On p.82 Nora tells us "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that I was in love with her - which I was - but in a romantic way - which I was not". A little later we read that at 25 she had a good job and the chance to marry Ben, a high-flying lawyer, but turned him down because he was boring, because she wanted more art in her life.

One of her friends, Didi, divorced to start a lesbian relationship and adopt. Nora tries to explain to Didi her situation. Didi concludes that Nora's in love with Sirena, wants to make love with her husband Skandar, and steal their child. Later (p.141) Nora says "I was in love with Reza. I was in love with Sirena. I was in love with Skandar. All these things were true; they were not mutually exclusive, but they also, most important, did not, as far as I could see, pertain to one another". And on p.143 "all three of them looked to me for something, even if none of us could tell what it was". Her lesbian friends think that Nora's feelings for Sirena are just a crush, more to do with Art and self-fulfilment than sex.

There's much about compartmentalized lives. Nora's art pieces were shoe-box sized scenes about famous woman writers. Towards the end Sirena says "it's as if the time in Cambridge, yes, such a hard time for us all - is in a separate box, now it's put away, it doesn't have a place in my every day" (p.274), contrasting with Nora's comment on p.271 - "It used to be that when people said 'Not a day goes by that I don't think of X of Y,' I considered it embarrassing and quaint hyperbole; but thanks to the Shahids, I now understood. In my thoughts, I'd even set aside times of the day for them". The final humiliation (or something much like it) was telegraphed back on p.214 when Nora thinks "I was in Wonderland, and for that brief unashamed, unbidden time, I was free.". On the last page Nora says "Virginia Woolf, in her rage, stopped being afraid of death; but I'm angry enough, as last, to stop being afraid of life ... Just watch me." - an ironic comment on her final humiliation at the hands of people who meant more to her than she did to them. But maybe they just had more distractions.

Some passages (e.g. p.111-2) drag and at other times the narrative's just one thing after another. On p.130 the sentence "I didn't entirely know whether to trust her: she was seeming false, to me, as if onstage" was unexpected given Nora's unquestioning behaviour before and after. And the tidiness of the plot sometimes tips over into predictable contrivance. I wasn't wowed by the writing either.

Other reviews

  • Nicholas Lezard (Guardian)
  • Elizabeth Day (Observer)
  • Emily Witt (London Review of Books)
  • Wendy Brandmark (Independent) ( there's a sloppiness in the novel; ... This imprecision is also true of the characterisation)
  • Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) (the dense, self-reflexive writing and the willfully commercial plot combine here to create what is, in the end, an intriguing but ungainly Frankenstein monster of a novel. )
  • Dory Cerny (If only the book wasn’t such a slog. At 290 pages, it reads more like 400)
  • Liesl Schillinger (New York Times)

No comments:

Post a Comment