Notes from the Book Group on October 28, 2014

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book Group on Tuesday October 28, 2014

For The Woman Upstairs by Claire Massud

Present: Roo Dane, host, Anne Ipsen, Dorianne Low, Katherine O’Connor, Sydney Owens, Barbara Powell, Cornelia Robart, and Wendy Weiss.

Some conversation about the Bookstore, which we are all greatly interested in. It seems we have two college presidents working to save it – our own Nancy Vickers and Mary Maples Dunn (of Smith). Barbara called for blitz volunteers – we are several, can use more!

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know!” Right from the get-go the reader is challenged – this will not be a comfortable story. The protagonist, Nora, an elementary schoolteacher, evoked different reactions – she is likeable, says one reader; I am impatient with her, says another; she is not the madwoman in the attic; she is a mark; she is easy to identify with; her negative self-talk has locked her into a role she has imagined for herself. Massud has drawn a complex character to prod our complacency about stereotypes of spinsters who live quiet, retiring, unexciting lives. The contrasting character, Sirena, wife of visiting professor Skandar Shaddid, is a charismatic artist who benefits from Nora’s willing endorsement of her needs and her brilliance by both babysitting and sharing an artist’s studio. The friendship with the cool husband Skandar is very nuanced – long months of walks in the neighborhood eventually consummated and simultaneously demolished. “You’ve got to live a little,” he advises prior to flowing away into his own life.

The environment of Cambridge entertained us locals. “There’s a psychologist on every block, why doesn’t Nora go to one?” Nora “mythologized” the Shaddids into people who genuinely cared for her, invited her into their family. But narcissistic Sirena was only interested in herself. The reader sees this and is frustrated by Nora’s naiveté.  She offers to babysit for free – was she born yesterday? Yet it serves her insecurity to be needed. Her own childhood is consumed with images of her disapproving mother. A late coming-of-age story, Nora is as narcissistic as Sirena, but what a difference! Sirena juggernauts over everyone with charming panache; Nora never imagines how unimportant she really is – “unindispensable.”

Sirena’s grand artistic installation is massive, colorful, intimate and outrageous. Nora’s delicate shadowbox dioramas of female authors’ rooms are tiny, unimportant, just as the two women are in life.

How the needy are badly served! The final betrayal of Nora is so swiftly described that we almost pass it by. Sirena, supposedly trusted friend and supporter, has pilfered photos of Nora masturbating in an anguished, exultant moment and used them unscrupulously as part of her new installation video. The intimate, taboo subject of female masturbation, “is a dynamite kicker” at the end. In just a few lines Massud reverses Nora’s view of her own life failures.

Massud, who is herself married with children, has done a terrific job of creating a character apparently opposite from herself. The theme of desire vs longing is lovingly traced in the walks with Skandar, the neutral husband. Perhaps satisfaction is enough….

Dostoevsky’s Underground is referred to for its great passion, that Nora at last experiences: “I am an angry man, I am a spiteful man.” For her, “You don’t need to feel suicidal when you are so angry.” The undercurrent of anger is unnerving, disturbing to the reader, energizing for Nora.  But do we believe Nora at the end when she claims, “I’m going to fucking well live – just watch me!”?