Monday, May 27, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

I found the first person point of view a bit tedious at times - though perhaps that was by design.  Nora, "The Woman Upstairs" describes herself as the unmarried, childless, 40 something school teacher who everybody likes but nobody really notices.  As a young woman she dreamed of being an artist but based in part on her mother's advice never to become dependent she takes the more practical route of becoming a third grade teacher.  She first goes to art school, become engaged but breaks the engagement and nurses her mother through Lou Gehrig's disease.  Now she lives on her own, teaches school, visits her aging father and spinster aunt and has occasional meetings with her lesbian best friend and her family.  That is until she meets the Shahids - her student Reza, his mother, Sirena and his father Skandar.  They are in Boston temporarily as Skandar is lecturing at Harvard.  Nora befriends and eventually worships Sirena who is of Italian extraction but worked in the Paris art world until her posting to Boston.  Together they rent a studio and Sirena tries to draw Nora back into art while getting her assistance on her own project - the creation of a life size Wonderland (of Alice fame).  Nora falls in love with Sirena - so babysits for Reza, does her menial labour and hangs on her every bit of praise.  She is also envious of her as she falls for both Reza and Skandar too even having a brief physical encounter with Skandar.  Nora always questions whether she means as much to the Shahids as they do to her, especially after they leave Boston and only have infrequent e-mail conversations (though Nora does get Google alerts of their every move).  Five years later she visits them in Paris only to discover that Sirena used her in her art installation in a very personal and humiliating way - thus realizing that she meant very little to the family after all.  So Nora returns to being the woman upstairs.

I didn't love the book, parts were slow and Nora's naiveté was frustrating - but it wasn't terrible either.

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