Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review - The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

I checked out the new novel by Claire Messud on a whim; I had just dropped off a bag of donated books to one of the library branches when the book caught my eye. Although I was currently reading The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre (an excellent book by the way!), I was intrigued by Messud's new novel. I decided to give The Woman Upstairs a try. What I found was a novel that made me angry, happy, wistful and satisfied while turning the pages wondering what would happen next. This is a novel that you MUST read!

Meet Nora. She is your typical WASP 40-ish woman who is single and childless. At one point in her life, she had wanted to become an artist yet threw that dream by the waist side and made other choices for herself. Now, she teaches third grade in Cambridge, MA and has classified herself to be the Woman Upstairs: the woman who looks out for everyone else and lives vicariously through other people yet denies herself even the smallest pleasure. Her life is of denial and she is okay with that until she meets the Shahid family - Reza, the beautiful child with eyes that would later break hearts, Skandar, the Lebanese professor and his wife Sirena, who is an Italian artist. Through this family, Nora creates her own fantasy life, even going so far as to delve back into the world of art, yet due to several life changing events, the world she created for herself and the true world that lies just beyond are forever jarred and changed. Nora's life reminds me of another slim yet powerful story - The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. To escape the wallpaper means freedom, whether real or imagined. Nora, in my own opinion, wants to be free from her self induced prison and thinks that the Shahid family is her tool of freedom.

Although this novel is slim, it is not to be underestimated; Nora's words will make you understand just what it truly means to be desperate in love and yearning to fulfill a life that was purposely made barren. Messud created a believable voice for Nora; at times, I wondered if I had ever met this woman, for she reminded me of so many people I have known in my life as well as myself when I finally decided to take my writing seriously. How many of us sit quietly in the back of a room, wanting to cry out and DO something yet are hindered by our own doubts? How many of us want a better life or a more creative life, yet we suffer in silence in our cubicle job because it is "safe"? How many of us want to visit foreign places, try a new hobby or create a new life, only to change our minds at the last minute because of our own limitations?

 The Woman Upstairs is in all of us, waiting to be freed. What will you do to free Her?

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