“The Woman Upstairs,” by Claire Messud

I had a dentist appointment recently, and brought this book along.  I knew I’d only have a maximum of about 5 minutes of free reading time, if any.  Sure enough, though I got there a few minutes early, they brought me right back.  Dang it!  I was disappointed.  From the moment I picked this book up, eating, sleeping, working, breathing, all seemed like a burden and unwelcome distraction from the only thing I really wanted to be doing, and that was reading more of this book.  It was that good.  Reminded me what I love so much about reading.

Luckily, when I got back to the chair, the dentist needed to check on another patient, so I got a chance to read a little after all.  The dentist seemed amused that I would bring a book in hopes of sneaking just a couple minutes of reading in (shows how well she knows me).  Chuckling, she remarked “that must be good; what’s it about?”  And I was left blank.  I’m rarely at a loss for words, especially about books.  But, though I was even then a good portion of the way in, I really couldn’t say.  Now that I’ve finished, I still can’t say.  And I think that’s a good thing.

At the time, all I could muster was “it’s about an angry woman.  An angry elementary school teacher who never had kids of her own.”  And it is.  But that’s a pretty superficial assessment.  So what else?

It’s about history, and how history can never see and convey all perspectives at once.  Therefore, any history is, at best, a best effort from a single perspective.  This has been on my mind lately, this concept that even history (and more broadly, non-fiction) is just as fictional, or at the very least subjective, as a lot of other writing.  What role does ethics play in writing a historical account?

It’s about isolation and loneliness.  And your initial impulse in hearing that, most of you, is probably “oh, that sounds sad.  Awful, really.”  But it’s not, at least not completely.  Certain people/personalities need solitude.  Quiet.  Time and space to reflect.

It’s about dreams.  Vivid dreams.  Good ones and bad ones.  Sleeping ones and waking ones.

It’s about love, in many of its various forms.  How you can love, for example, each member of a family in an equally intense but completely different way.  I guess you could call it a non-traditional love story.  And I like those.  I like traditional ones too, but it seems we all, if we are lucky, only ever get to see one of those from start to finish.  Stories like this one allow you to catch glimpses of other potential ones in a harmless environment.

It’s about art.  Art vs. entertainment.  Art vs. “reality.”

It’s about human frailty.  And imperfection.  And selfishness.

One line that really struck me and stuck with me: “I couldn’t bear to be a failure.  It seemed worse to try and fail than not to try.”  I know people who think this way, some of them very well.

In another part, the narrator describes feeling multiple different, conflicting sentiments at the same time, and how she could “keep it all in [her] head at once.”  I thought that, too, was a beautiful and familiar concept.”

This was the best, most moving book I have read in a long time.  The “woman upstairs” concept was fascinating, and it made me think of others I might know.  This was a personal recommendation from Dunce One to me, and it was an excellent one.  He’s one of the best book recommenders around (he’s an avid reader, and a librarian, after all).

Highly, highly, highly recommend it.  Please let me know if you get a chance to read it, and let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on ““The Woman Upstairs,” by Claire Messud

  1. I liked it. I am not sure that I liked it as much as you did, but I think that may be due to my grave error of listening to the audio book rather than reading the words. I like words. Even as I was listening I kept thinking “I probably would have appreciated that sentence so much more had I been reading it.” That being said, I’m listening to “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt right now (audio was the only way I could get a hold of it and in reality I rarely learn from my mistakes) and I am loving every second.

    • I have gone both ways on listening vs. reading. Sometimes it really adds something. Other times, yeah, it kind of ruins it. I recently had a chance to listen to one of my favorite authors read something live. THAT was an experience. I found myself thinking “oh, so that’s what he meant, and how he meant it, and what the inflection should be. How delightful!”

      It is also possible, I suppose, that we simply have different tastes. I’m glad you found it at least tolerable.

      Be careful who you listen to The Goldfinch around. Some of that content is not for children’s ears!

  2. I finally finished this book. In some ways, I was bummed for distractions that put a damper on the consecutive minutes I could spend with it, but in a way, I was able to savor it. Great review of a very good book. And I’m feeling the same way, right this minute, after finishing it. I don’t know exactly how to explain it or how I feel about it.

    This is a sad and lonely life described here. I’m a person who enjoys large doses of solitude but the level lived by this “woman upstairs” (I was actually expecting her to live upstairs from the other characters so I liked the use of this concept) was almost frightening. At least to me. Yeah, it’s about love, too. I think we all, or most of us, have experienced feelings of non-traditional love. For people we aren’t supposed to feel that way about. Love is so specifically different, sometimes one-sided, based on the people involved. And I, too, liked reading her struggles with it.

    “There is what is imaginary, and there is what is real.” “There’s that room inside your mind where you are most freely and unconcernedly yourself, and then there are the many layers of masquerade by which you protect that skinless core.” “I’d fallen in love not only with a particular configuration of people, but with that particular configuration in a particular moment in their lives and in mine.” “You couldn’t replicate what had been.”

    The selfishness, art (entertainment vs. reality), there was so much wrapped up in 300 pages. At times, I was caught off guard. I don’t think I liked it as much as you but I liked it a lot. It does make me want to “try” another book or two of hers. You’ll have to report in when you finish them.

    This fall, I had the opportunity to hear Donna Tartt read from The Goldfinch. Amazingly enough, it was my favorite passage and her whisper-toned voice made it all the more touchingly poignant. It had a huge impact on me. I’ll love her for life. Who did you get to see “live”?

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