Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs is a book by Claire Messud the author of The Emperor's Children and other novels.   I had read the Emperor's Children and thought it was good, but not great.  Similarly, I think The Woman Upstairs was good, but not great.

There is a yiddish expression that when translated means: Everyone has their own brand of craziness.  The message in this book is not quite the same, yet the expression is still applicable.

The book is about a relatively normal woman who has her pains and regrets--as we all do.  Someone who is not strange or ill or exceptional either positively or negatively.  She is the "woman upstairs."  The, in this case, single woman who lives upstairs who nobody seems to know much about.  Every person is the woman upstairs with their own potentially debilitating story.  And everyone, I believe, has had their bruises that could make them very angry and consequently, in terms of self actualization, dysfunctional.

You only have to read page one to know that Nora is angry.  I finished the book last night living with Nora and her tale for a week.  It was not until this morning that I recalled that the main character in Ibsen's A Doll's House was also named Nora.  This is no coincidence.  A Doll's House is one of the plays we had to read in high school and one that I drew to write a paper on.  Still, my recollection of it is vague, but not so vague that I can't see the relationship between that Nora and this one. That Nora is trapped in a conventional relationship where she is treated like a fragile doll and ironically, because of this treatment, is about to explode.

Nora Eldredge in this novel is not treated like a fragile doll, but she is fragile.  She takes care of her dad and took care of her dying mother.  She is an elementary school teacher but beyond her work her interactions are limited. She has had lovers and has a few dear friends. She was engaged to a kind man but did not think that would be for her and left him as well as the lucrative power job she then had.

But something happens to Nora which fills her up and thrills her such that she feels alive and excited to be.  One of Nora's young students is so dear that Nora feels especially attached to him.  Nora meets the mother of Reza and then the father.  The mother is an artist as Nora had always wanted to be.  Sirena, the mother, suggests that the two share a studio and do their work together there.

What happens is that Nora becomes nourished by her relationships with the child, the mother, and her husband.  She is able to work creating essentially dolls' houses of women artists.  One, for example, of Emily Dickinson.  At the same time Nora is creating her dolls' houses Sirena--a more accomplished artist--is creating Wonderland and videotaping her creation as well as others who come to the studio to interact with Wonderland.  Nora is so attached to Sirena that she thinks she is in love with her. Meanwhile she has a physical attraction to Sirena's accomplished professor husband. And she is so fond of the sweet boy who is their son and is in her class.  The evolving relationships makes her feel enriched and in love and happy or at least much happier.

But some things happen that dilute the intensity of the relationships. Then one thing happens that devastates Nora and destroys the bonds that had evolved. Nora at the end has explained why she is furious. How furious. Go read page one of the novel on Amazon and see what Nora wants to tell the world.

I think the book takes too long to make the point.  It is not a long book, but it is not a long point.  There are sections and sentences however that are just brilliant and almost worth the read in and of themselves.  At one point Nora is speaking about how one can get so accustomed to a concocted persona, that one can't change back from what isn't to what is.

"It doesn't ever occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable."

Very true.

I do believe that some pain is more difficult to eradicate than others. For many we become the person upstairs--someone whose pain is not lethal, but becomes infuriating and debilitating nonetheless.

If you like to read, it's not a bad way to spend a week, but the book can be depressing and it seemed to me that some sections could have been edited out.

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