The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Reviewed by Mia Lipman 

In her dark and deft fourth novel, the much lauded Claire Messud pulls no punches with the voice of Nora Eldridge, a beloved schoolteacher wound up explosively tight. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” she notes by way of introduction, and it’s fair to say things go downhill from there—but Messud’s vivid writing woos us into keeping this bitter pill of a lady company. (The author came by her PEN/Faulkner Award and Booker Prize nominations honestly.)

Having played the “straitlaced” good girl for all of her fortysomething years, Nora anchors her ferocity just beneath the surface, and it takes a family of three to unleash it: the Shahids, whose luminous young son, Reza, “a canonical boy,” captures Nora’s imagination when he enters her third-grade classroom. Reza’s foreignness and poor English charm his teacher, but the other students peg him as a target, and a playground scuffle connects Nora with his mother, Sirena. The two women share an interest in art—Sirena’s professional and thriving, Nora’s amateur and unfulfilled—and soon they also share a studio that becomes Nora’s refuge from everything she resents: failed relationships, dead mother and hypochondriac father, no art degree, no children. Sirena’s academic husband, Skandar, welcomes his wife’s new friend and his son’s “institutrice” with polite intimacy, and the Shahids quickly absorb Nora into their worldly, accomplished family.

But on Messud’s watch, it’s never as easy as all that. Familiarity can breed obsession, and Nora finds herself teetering on the hairline crack between trust and distrust as she digs deeper into her new relationships. Messud is comfortable in claustrophobic spaces, and it’s hard not to follow her into them, flinching, even when we ought to know better.

This sharp, empathetic portrait of a broken woman demands a second glance, then a third, then an entire afternoon. The payoff will leave you reeling.

Knopf, April 2013

ISBN-10: 0307596907

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Mia LipmanMia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys

Reviewed by Mia Lipman

When Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her linked story collection, Olive Kitteridge, reviewers praised her gift for elevating the ordinary. Among the rarefied breed of unrushed authors who produce an enviable book every 5 to 10 years (see: Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Díaz, Ann Packer), Strout also has a particular talent for spinning empathy out of misery. Her characters are mean, stupid, bumbling, frustrating, and hard to get enough of.

Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys, reimagines an unhappy neighbor family from her childhood as even worse off than they probably were: dead father, incompetent mother, blowhard older brother Jim, hopeless younger brother Bob, and wayward sister Susan. The three kids have managed to avoid each other for years, resenting from afar—but when Susan’s teenage son, Zach, acts out by throwing a pig’s head into a mosque, Bob and Jim are forced into an awkward attempt at solidarity to help him survive the public outcry. The Burgess boys never wanted to go back to Shirley Falls, Maine, so they can’t muster much enthusiasm when it becomes obvious they have no choice.

Woven into this family mess are glimpses at the life of a local Muslim man, Abdikarim Ahmed, who emigrated from Somalia and belongs to the mosque that Zach defiled. Strout isn’t quite as successful at reading his mind, but Abdikarim and his family offer a quiet, pointed reflection on what it means to be in community.

Weirdly and brilliantly, Zach turns out to be the moral compass at the center of the Burgess brouhaha. By all accounts a sweet kid, he doesn’t really understand why he did what he did, and the adults around him sure as hell don’t. But in the course of trying to figure it out, each of these broken people manages to do a little better than usual. Also a lot worse—there are no miracle cures in Strout’s world. But the moments of connection, through hatred as well as love, are riveting.

Only a writer this deeply tapped into how humans work could make you want to sit still and watch as the Burgesses flail, suffer, and endure.

Random House, March 2013

ISBN-10: 1400067685

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Mia Lipman

Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.