Monday, July 4, 2016

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messed

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messed
Published April 2013 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: hardcover and audiobook purchased at the library book sale
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell

Publisher's Summary:
Nora Eldridge, a thirty-seven-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who long ago abandoned her ambition to be a successful artist, has become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and tidy neighbor always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her classroom walks Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents—dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar and professor at the École Normale Supérleure; and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist—have come to Boston for Skandar to take up a fellowship at Harvard. When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who call him a "terrorist," Nora is drawn into the complex world of the Shahid family: she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora's happiness explodes her boundaries, until Sirena's careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal. Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill—and the devastating cost—of giving in to one's passions.

My Thoughts:
You'll notice I have two copies of this book. No, I did not do that on purpose with thoughts of doing a read/listen combination. In fact, I never cracked the book. Partly because I didn't even remember that I had the print copy of the book until I was almost half way through the book. But more so because I never got out of my car thinking that I just had to keep reading. Which says something, I suppose, about how I felt about this book. Except, it doesn't.

Nora is one hella angry woman.
"How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that
I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl, I'm a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody's boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents' shit and my brother's shit, and I'm not a girl anyhow, I'm over forty fucking years old, and I'm good at my job and I'm great with kids and I held my mother's hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone -- every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it's pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say "Great Artist" on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say "such a good teacher/daughter/friend" instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL."
Like I said, filled with rage. Unlike a lot of people, Claire knew what she wanted to have when she grew up, knew she would be an artist and a mother.  Her mother, who pleaded with her at one point in her youth "Don't ever get yourself stuck like this," became Claire's lodestar. But that very piece of advice also pushed Claire to make some safe choices, choices that would mean she would not have to rely on a man. And life, as life so often does, got in the way. Instead of having a family and being a world-reknowned artist, Claire is alone and only works as an artist in the spare bedroom of her home.

Nora is an unlikable character, but she's not unknowable. How many of us had dreams that never came true? And Nora, to an extent, understands why her dreams haven't come true. She knows the fault is largely her own.
“I always thought I'd get farther. I'd like to blame the world for what I've failed to do, but the failure - the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit - is all mine, in the end. What made my obstacles insurmountable, what consigned me to mediocrity, is me, just me. I thought for so long, forever, that I was strong enough -- or I misunderstood what strength was.”
When the Shahids come into her life, Nora falls in love with each of them separately, for the very piece of her dreams that each of them represent. Reza, the child she never had; Skandar, the intelligent man who is interested in her opinions; Sirena, who has the big artist's life that Nora so wanted. Interesting enough. But about that time, I started to get confused about where Messed was going with the book. Was she going to make this a book about what happens when someone becomes as obsessed as Nora had become. To be honest, I got a little bit bored, too. I got it, I got it - Nora's world was tiny, Sirena's world was bigger and getting bigger all of the time.

When it became obvious where Messud was going with the story, it picked back up again and the last third of the book picked back up again for me and the ending felt perfect. Back to an angry Nora. This time deservedly so. This time with an goal. I liked that.

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