Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Woman Upstairs

Just finished Claire Messud's most recent book, titled just like this post.  I was excited to read it, though not excited enough to buy it hardcover.  I am one cheap bastard.

But the book got me back. I was reading it while flying to Austin for spring break, having just heard the news about Akin.  As I got rolling, I was getting really into it, was kind of in an emotional place, understandably.  Then, in the hustle and bustle of getting off the plane, I left it in the seat pocket, just like I left a copy of You Can't Go Home Again on a plane 5 years ago when we were considering moving home to Chapel Hill.

So I had to have a copy delivered to my iPad.  Which negated the money I saved waiting for the trade paperback. Talk about poetic justice.

The book is entirely character-driven, not plot-driven.  There's a 40-ish woman who teaches school, wanted to be an artist but got nudged away from her dreams.  She becomes obsessed with a kind of glamorous Euro-intellectual family living there in Cambridge, mother artist, father scholar, son precocious and sweet.  She gets her groove on, and then she gets got.  As it were. You wouldn't think it would be a page-turner, but in its own way it was.  You want the character to do well, break out of her rut, keep going.  And she kind of does...

I will say that I read it with some mixed feelings, as I have the same sort of envy of Claire's glittering success as the narrator does of her seeming BFF.  I knew her pretty well in college, she was a writer then, talented, and she kept at it, and now look at her.  I, by contrast, dabbled at writing, and now all I have is this blog. I'm sure that this is part of the book's considerable success. Most everybody can identify with the theme of compromise and diminished expectations, and the sometimes crushing envy of those who didn't compromise and rocked. And knowing how ridiculous it is to feel that envy, and wishing them well at the same time. More than any book I can think of, this one is optimized for the book club market.  Why sell 1 book at a time when you can market to groups of 8 or 12?

One last thing.  Early on, our narrator says outright that she is not The Underground Man (from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground).  And in truth, she ain't him, but she has no closer literary cousin, as the book's very title hints.  And, as I remember like it was yesterday reading the Dostoevsky for the first time maybe 31 years ago, sweaty, sitting up in bed in my room directly downstairs from this where I sit now, now the guest room, it's no wonder it resonates with me so.  I am the Reader Upstairs.

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