**spoiler alert** This novel tells the story of every artist I've known who feels unappreciated, that the establishment is against them, that life is...more**spoiler alert** This novel tells the story of every artist I've known who feels unappreciated, that the establishment is against them, that life is unfair. At various points in my development, I would have strongly identified with Nora, the protagonist, and considered the events of this novel as proof that there are others like me.
Thankfully, feeling jaded comes in waves for most of the artists I know, rather than being a permanent way of life as it seems to be for Nora. I find myself unable to buy into Nora's paranoid worldview. Because she doesn't confront others--except for third-graders who misbehave--I just don't buy many of her interpretations of others' words and deeds because they don't have opportunities to confirm or deny, show signs of offense or discomfort.
It comes as no surprise to me that, among the catalog of ways the world has wronged her, the pièce de résistance comes just pages before the end of the novel. Instead of then confronting Sirena when they meet for lunch, Nora goes the gutless route by not calling Sirena to confirm their date. She says her piece to the reader, then she's done.
However, given how Nora's private solo moment was captured on video, it seems likely that Sirena also got footage of Nora and her husband having their private moment. Perhaps Sirena's betrayal is payback for Nora's. Or it's possible that Sirena and her husband set Nora up, as Nora believes, but it's not clear why Sirena would have gone to so much trouble or why she would see Nora as important enough to betray. If indeed Messud intends the reader to believe that some master plan drove the story, it's a shame, because it's a rather boring plan.
Despite all that disappointed me, I love Messud's prose. She writes gorgeous sentences and paragraphs, and her word choice at times is appropriately surprising. And my take on the novel is that the characters seem believably flawed but decent people. They have wants and needs, but none of them seems bent on abusing other people to fulfill their dreams. Nora is so invested in her Woman Upstairs persona--to the point of glamourizing it--I'm left wondering why Nora wouldn't or couldn't voice her expectations, or at least take some responsibility for how things went wrong. Ultimately, she's a 40-something adolescent, and that's just not interesting to me.(less)
Reading this novella felt like looking at old jewelry at a flea market as the salesperson talks about who owned it--I didn't feel much emotional inves...moreReading this novella felt like looking at old jewelry at a flea market as the salesperson talks about who owned it--I didn't feel much emotional investment, nor did I get a sense of whether the narrator came anywhere close to the truth.
The title suggests that the cool surface belies what's going on beneath. That's sort of true, but the protagonist seems content, if not happy, to be trapped by her emotional reserve. She doesn't so much take chances as consider taking chances in the future. The one legitimate attempt she makes to reveal feelings results in an opportunity to pine for someone she won't see again for months, if ever. At the end, she is on the verge of sharing something, her emotional investment presumably greater and the stakes supposedly higher. Conveniently, the author and protagonist are not committed to following through.
The narrative shifts between present and past, but unlike a lot of novels, this one works. The shifts occur by chapter and aren't fancy. After a few s...moreThe narrative shifts between present and past, but unlike a lot of novels, this one works. The shifts occur by chapter and aren't fancy. After a few shifts, it's clear that they are necessary to understanding the story, emphasizing the significance of the moment that separates "after" and "before." Although I anticipated how terrible that moment would be, I wasn't quite right or prepared for it. The power of this novel for me was that it made me wonder "How could this happen?" while realizing shit like this happens every day.(less)
I've read some of the classic books on writing fiction (Forster, Wharton, Gardner) and found them unhelpful. They reveal those masters' tastes and giv...moreI've read some of the classic books on writing fiction (Forster, Wharton, Gardner) and found them unhelpful. They reveal those masters' tastes and gives me a sense of why certain novels and writers are great in their opinions, but I don't want to write novels like those, and those books haven't helped me understand how I might use their knowledge to move forward.
Wood's approach--to engage in a conversation with supposedly tried and true advice--is inspiring, providing freshened observations and giving this jaded English major a great model for my armchair criticism.
Wood doesn't show how fiction works in a mechanical sense, as some have complained. I don't have a problem with that. I don't need another treatise that promises to teach me what I really need to explore for myself. He provides some insight for my writerly exploration, focusing on how fiction works for readers, which I think is more useful.
Summarizing Brigid Lowe, he says that fiction's purpose is not to make us believe but, rather, to get the reader to imagine. A goal that powerful helps me better understand the work I need to do as a writer.(less)
I can't believe how much I enjoyed this novel. I read it over three days, which is very unlike me. I typically either savor a book (i.e., read very sl...moreI can't believe how much I enjoyed this novel. I read it over three days, which is very unlike me. I typically either savor a book (i.e., read very slowly) or give up. So three days means I'm hooked. For some context, the only book I've read in 24 hours is Frankenstein, FWIW.
There are so many characters and situations that are too good to be true, yet the story has plenty of reality to bring the reader back to earth. Even in families and schools and neighborhoods gilded by privilege, some folks have to make a living, and bad shit goes down.
As a writer, I admire that the novel gets at--addresses--timely issues through characters and plot. The way events unfold, and the ways characters react, are all believable. The various first-person narrators reveal the complexity of the family's life yet keep the narrative moving forward. The prose is very smart, particularly the dialogue, which is packed with inside jokes and asides as real people talk but that so rarely works this well in fiction. I end up with a strong sense of who the characters are as people. They all mean well, and the author lets us like them without letting them off the hook. In particular, the adults need to grow up and step up. Will they do it? That is the question--again, just like real life.
Most of all, I love how much the character talk and that we're let into the various narrators' minds. We're not allowed in to get all the answers or for easy exposition. As satisfied as I felt with the arc and sense of closure the final scene creates, the novel leaves me with questions. That's as it should be. (less)