Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

15701217Blurb:

Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents–dashing Skandar, a half-Muslim Professor of Ethical History born in Beirut, and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist–have come to America for Skandar to teach at Harvard.

But one afternoon, Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who punch, push and call him a “terrorist,” and Nora is quickly drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family. Soon she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries–until Sirena’s own ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.

Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, this urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill–and the devastating cost–of giving in to one’s passions. The Woman Upstairs is a masterly story of America today, of being a woman and of the exhilarations of love.

Review:

So apparently Nora Eldridge, the washed-up 37-year-old schoolteacher-cum-wannabe-artist protagonist of The Woman Upstairs, is unlikeable? So say the many reviewers before me. But reducing her character (or to be frank, any person, fictional or non) to that single word—un.like.a.ble—is wrong. For a plethora of reasons of which two ring out more strongly than the rest: 1. “unlikeable” says more about the reader than the character 2. it malignantly suggests that being unlikeable is abad thing, which implicitly suggests that being likeable is a goodthing, more than a good thing, a very necessary thing, a zenith, self-actualization, state-of-being kind of thing.

This is not ideal. Because as Messud shows us eruditely but still approachably, the striving to be likeable leads to a generation of “women upstairs,” women who will serve you dinner with a smile, go to and from work with due diligence, deny themselves what they want for the sake of others, until finally, maybe at the brink of death, perhaps in a garden of wilted flowers that had of course been dutifully watered yet died nevertheless, they realize their losses in the pursuit of being “likeable,” a quality who is sisters with “deferential” and “diffident” and, worst, “average.”

So for me, hallelujah that Nora Eldridge is unlikeable. Good for her. A more apt and commendable term to describe her ishungry, maybe even rapacious. Many might take it for a stretch, but Nora reminded me of Eleanor, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s horror novel The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor has forsaken herself for others for thirty long years and eventually goes mad because of it. Spurred on by the arrival of the bewitching Shahid family, Nora will become mad too, but of the furious rather than crazy variety.

Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup
of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone
else you will never see your cup of stars again.

That quotation is from The Haunting of Hill House but it could just as well be words from Nora’s mouth at the end of The Woman Upstairs when she gets hungry enough, angry enough, to burst downstairs and tell the world what she wants, cup of stars included. Messud complicates the tableau with tangents into art, family, children. Are women simply deformed children—infantalized into desiring certain things, but lacking the sangfroid, gall, or simple means to attain them? This is a hate-story dressed up as a love-story. For all the sonnets and platitudes dedicated to love’s treasures, it is hate that truly awakens and quickens the mind. Nora’s hatred may make her “unlikeable” to certain readers, but thank goodness for it! Hatred, not love, not desire, definitely not longing, is what finally pushes her to live.

4 out of 5 stars

Advertisements

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

11161779Blurb:

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods – until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Review:

Typical Shirley Jackson, upending narrative conventions and beginning a story with a dynamite paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle’s genre is nebulous. How to classify this weird, weird little book? Unlike Jackson’s other famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, Castle is not a haunted house story, but the genesis of a haunted house story. Houses aren’t built haunted; they become haunted. The Blackwood House once stood tall above a village occupied by generations of the well-to-do Blackwood family until one day they are all murdered around the dinner table, killed by arsenic laced in a bowl of sugar, leaving only the surviving sisters Constance and Mary Katherine, fondly called “Merricat,” to live there.

Like all good haunted house stories, between the fall of Blackwood House from respected family manor to a burnt and boarded “castle,” there are plenty of narrative gaps; doors opened only a crack, big black spaces scarcely illuminated by a sliver of light. The history of the Blackwood House and its family is mysterious. Who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl? Why does Constance refuse to leave the house? Why is Merricat forbidden to cook dinner? Gaps in knowledge mean Blackwood House is the perfect target for imaginative village storytellers trying to solve those mysteries. Only instead of seeking true answers for the Blackwoods’ decline, they choose to populate the house with ghosts and witches and cannibalistic old maids.

Underneath its ostentatiously bizarre façade, Castle retreads the same old Shirley Jackson ideas. Conflict is mostly internal, dealing with the choice between being an individual and fitting in with society. Those who choose society fall victim to mob mentality, unable to properly decide what is right versus what everyone else is doing. Here everything is topsy-turvy. Villains can be heroes as long as they have strength of conviction. What is important is not if your actions are right or wrong, but whether these actions are motivated by your own decision-making. Happiness is not other people; horror lurks in a friendly neighborhood too. And happiness can be found inside a castle, inside a rotted old haunted house, because you are alone, isolated, and safe; nobody else can enter.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

89723Blurb:

The Lottery, one of the most terrifying stories written in this century, created a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker. “Power and haunting,” and “nights of unrest” were typical reader responses. This collection, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson’s lifetime, unites “The Lottery:” with twenty-four equally unusual stories. Together they demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range–from the hilarious to the truly horrible–and power as a storyteller.

Review:

Read this book for one reaction: gasping “whaaaaaat!” or perhaps “whaaaaat?” (punctuation varies) after reading the final sentence of every story.

Shirley Jackson is the indisputable master of the “whaaaaaat!/?” Some stories end ambiguously, leaving you scrambling back through the pages searching for a clue or alternately racing to open Google to read others’ wise analyses. Other stories end completely and absolutely unambiguously, leaving you to question not what actually happened but to wonder how such a terrible ending could come to pass. (“The Lottery,” Jackson’s most famous tale, falls in the second type.) But no matter if the ending is ambiguous or unambiguous, what I want to emphasize is that Shirley Jackson knows how to end. I have now read dozens of her short stories and one of her novels and I am convinced that I know of no author who finishes every piece with such decisive flourish. 

It’s an incredible skill, knowing how to end something. I often find short stories forgettable. Any novel of 300 pages will indubitably engrave itself in my mind by mere virtue of the hours required to read it. A story of less than 20 pages, however, is at a clear disadvantage. A short story must shock to be memorable. Luckily for us, Jackson has one setting: shock the reader. On the last page, or more often, the last sentence. 

But her shocking endings are of the mild, ungratuitous variety. Two of my favorite stories–“The Daemon Lover” and “Like Mother Used to Make”–finish with the protagonists questioning their sanity and autonomy. They don’t run screaming to mental hospitals; rather, they stay quietly and desperately in their homes, wondering who they are and if this is–if this truly can be–their life.  To me, such an ending is much more powerful than any louder alternative. 

There is something so mundane to Jackson’s writing, which makes the fact that most of the stories are categorized in the horror genre more, well, horrifying. Because it suggests that the quotidian is horror. Jackson is wonderfully aware of the fact that the everyday lives of the normalest of the normal are the most frightening things in the world. No need for ghosts or murderers, everything you need is right there inside of us.

For Jackson, horror is the casual racism of a small New England town, the irrepressible distress of a 30 year old unmarried woman searching for a husband, the monotonous daily routine of a department store salesperson, a badly misbehaving child and his oblivious parents, the terrifying anonymity of an individual in a metropolis of millions. In short, horror is real life.

These stories have a rare rereadable quality. I know that I will reread this collection for the rest of my life, and at the end of every story, for the rest of my life, I will say “whaaaaat!/?”

5 out of 5 stars

Best Books of 2013

2013 isn’t over yet, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have one more excellent read before the year closes. At the time of this post, I’ve read a total of 95 books which amounts to 36,913 pages this year. I’ll likely add a bit to that, but for now I’m ready to proclaim my completely objective picks for the Best Books I’ve Read in 2013.

16068905Best Book About A Fictional Harry Potteresque Fan Community: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl (4 stars) is a giddy-making book, plain and simple. You will not be able to read about Cath, a fanfiction writer for the Simon Snow books (very obviously parodying the Harry Potter series), and her first year college adventures without becoming very very excited. Even though Rainbow Rowell touches serious topics like social anxiety, loneliness, academic cheating, and divorce, Fangirl is easily the most joyful book I read this year. Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (4 stars) was another favorite, though less happy and more wistful.

89717Best Book Published A Long Time Ago That I Just Read This Year: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Does the name Shirley Jackson ring a bell? She’s famous for her New Yorker short story The Lottery. Like The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House (5 stars) packs a wallop of an ending. This is not a horror novel but a terror novel. The fear lies in what we don’t see and what we don’t know. And for any obsessive book theorizers out there, those readers that love to form hypotheses about what really happened or what it all really means, this is the perfect book for you. Bonus? It’s exquisitely written (and inspired my blog title!).

2815590Best Book About A Savage Female Lumber Baron: Serena by Ron Rash

After reading the blurb for Serena (5 stars), I had the distinct impression that I was about to read the type of book where everyone dies at the end. In the least spoilery way possible, let me say that I was not disappointed. I love books that continuously shock me, where every new page promises an unexpected turn. That’s Serena. It doesn’t hurt that the titular character is one of the most tremendous female characters I’ve ever read about. I guess that’s what you get when you base a character on Lady Macbeth.

24Best Book That Made Me Want To Book A Flight on Qantas Airways ASAP: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country (4 stars) introduces readers to the enigma that is Australia. Before reading it, I knew practically nothing about this vast continent/island/country landmass isolated in the Pacific. I learned a lot but what elevates this book above a typical travelogue is Bryson’s writing. He’s absolutely hilarious, with a keen eye for good trivia and bullshit. Honorable mention for the Best Book That Made Me Want To Hike A 2179 Mile Trail: Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods.
(4 stars)

 

15815364Best ‘Self-Help’ Book That Is Actually An Incredibly Moving Novel: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Beautifully written and painfully realistic, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (5 stars) killed me. In a good way. This slim novel can be read in only a few hours. There’s so much to discuss here—the Westernization of Asia, the impact of post-colonialism, the role of women in traditional cultures—but I was more enthralled by the story. You meet the protagonist at birth and follow him to his grave. It’s impossible not to get attached.

3483Best Book With A Final Exam At The End: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Really 2013 was the year of Marisha Pessl. Though she’s only published two books, Marisha is now a favorite author of mine. Special Topics (5 stars) was actually published years ago, but I read it in preparation for Night Film (5 stars), Pessl’s 2013 release. Both are spectacular with vividly quirky characters who somewhat mask the dark perturbations moving behind the scenes. Pessl is responsible for the most shocking plot twists I’ve seen this year. As a great connoisseur of the plot twist, I cannot be more happy to have found her books.

Honorable Mentions:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (4 stars), Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (4 stars), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5 stars–but never reviewed!), Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois (4 stars), The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (4 stars), and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (5 stars)

What are the best books you read in 2013?

Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

89717Blurb:The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Review:

We do not exist if we are not noticed.

That idea is what I took away from the tortuous, shocking horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, but I have no idea if it’s a common interpretation or not. The story begins innocuously, or as innocuously as a story can begin when the opening chapters feature four characters driving to a secluded country house in hopes of monitoring supernatural activity previously observed there. After finishing the novel, I looked back upon the slow, casual beginning with awe; this novel takes so many sharp turns along the way, the ending is nearly 180° from the start and I’m still not exactly sure what I read.

One thing I do know is that the novel is ostensibly about Hill House, as suggested by the title, but what it’s really about is Eleanor, the character who lends her perspective to most of the narrative. Eleanor is one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever come across, and I still don’t quite know what to make of her. The first description of Eleanor reads:

Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.

With this quotation, Jackson prepares the reader to sympathize with dear Eleanor while also introducing the complexities of Eleanor’s psyche, which become very important to the interpretation of the novel. Upon arriving at Hill House, Eleanor makes her first ever friends and becomes besotted with the camaraderie of Theodora, an outgoing woman who is Eleanor’s virtual opposite, the male attention of Luke, the heir to Hill House, and Dr. Montague, the scientist in charge of the investigation who tells Eleanor she was chosen for the project because she is special (she showed poltergeist tendencies in her youth). So this tableau is the set-up Jackson provides, and it appears simple enough but slowly, Hill House creeps in and things get crazy.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Act II is where the horror elements appear, and there were some moments that truly frightened me. But since we’re reading through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, it is unclear whether this paranormal activity is affecting all the characters equally. Indeed, it is unclear whether this activity is even happening. And therein lies the magic of this novel. I have absolutely no idea what happened, but I love trying to figure it out. How is one supposed to read Hill House? Is it a true tale of supernatural horror? Or is it merely the unraveling of an unstable, lonely woman, a woman who has been denied her cup of stars for 30 years? Whichever interpretation you choose, you will be spooked, because both are equally shocking and sorrowful.

Here’s a litmus test of whether you’ll like this book: did you love or hate the top-spinning final scene in the film Inception? If you hated it, step away. If you loved it, or at the very least, if you found the post-film discussion it provoked compelling, then you might appreciate The Haunting of Hill House. There aren’t many answers here, but there are a whole lot of interpretations that will haunt you for days.

5 out of 5 stars