The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

womanI have complex feelings about this book. It has such a strong narrator, equally well represented in audio. It will appeal to 20- and 30-something professional women who don’t feel like they have it all figured out. And yet… it never really got past three shells for me. So I set out to interview my friend and fellow librarian Shannon (and the one who recommended it to me) to find out where I took a turn. Here goes:

Erica: You really enjoyed this book. Why?
Shannon:  I really liked The Woman Upstairs because it was feminist. This woman makes her own choices and goes her own way. They might be bad choices, but they are hers and she owns them. Also, the central conceit of being the “woman upstairs” really spoke to me. How women are supposed to be nice and sweet and unnoticed most of the time, and how the main character railed against that.
Erica: Why did you think I would like The Woman Upstairs? What made you recommend it to me?
Shannon:  I recommended it because we share similar values and ways of thinking. We both enjoy feminist characters and ideas, we both strive to be strong and independent like the main character, and I have the feeling we both have felt the way the main character does as a woman upstairs: chafing against what society expects women to be.
Erica: Yes. But back to your earlier comment about how she rails against that concept. Does she? I got the sense that she thought about doing it but kind of just kept going along with her day to day existence as expected. She just thought about it a lot.
Shannon: It’s been a while since I read it, so my memory may be hazy.
[SEMI-SPOILER WARNING]
Erica: Ok, so she kind of does art when she has her awakening. And she kind of has an affair. And then at the end she takes a small break from teaching to travel. But then what? Does she remake her life? Or does she fall back passively into the same life?
Shannon: I have the suspicion that she falls back, and that’s the true tragedy of it, I suppose. Or is this a watershed moment for her? I don’t know.
Erica: I also thought that nothing would change. She had tried and failed and been broken. I mean, yeah, sure, she’s angry. But she was kind of already angry. I think I was disappointed that her drive just wasn’t there. I was half asleep on the plane when I got to the point where she went to Paris and I was so excited that she was finally doing it! Making her art! Doing her thing! Traveling! And then I listened again and was like “Oh…” She just… doesn’t do what I thought. I think it was the let down that kept me from rating it higher. I think I wanted this strong voice to be a strong character. How do you reconcile the two?
Shannon: Well I guess that’s the thing. Her character is complicated, and that is what makes her interesting as well as frustrating. I think you would need an entirely different character to have the ending we want, where she strikes out on her own and does her art. Maybe we are supposed to take her as an example of what not to do.

And there you have it. Sometimes characters who don’t have it all figured out just don’t figure it out. I for one am not fond of that type of narrative, but that’s ok. Every book its reader.

Erica’s rating: three-shells
Shannon’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells

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