Book Reviews

By Daniel Brown

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, is important and refreshing on a number of levels.  Messud, whose first novel The Emperor’s Children chronicles the lives of Milleniums and their very achieving parents, mainly in New York City, does such a good job at highlighting the lives of these Helicopter Parents and their wildly overindulged children, that I began to detest her characters and occasionally their overliberal, overindulgent West Side/Central Park West type parents: politically engaged, affluent, well connected, parents and children stop just short of being repulsive (not the author’s intention, I don’t think) and I remember beginning to hope, secretly, that some bad things might happen to this group of brats.  Messud writes astutely, in that novel, about these Hothouse children, their expectations and their overachievments. But there’s something in her writing that makes me suspicious, makes me not quite trust her.

The Woman Upstairs is an almost forty year old single woman who has been teaching in an elementary school in the Boston area for over a decade; she dutifully , and occasionally, visits her aging father and his “spinster” sister, the well-named Aunt Baby, as infrequently as she can.  She sees her life as empty and dull, predictable and without adventure, love, romance or glamour.

So when a family arrives in Boston for a one-year sabbatical, and the one child becomes her student, Nora, the narrator, rather falls in love with all three, the Lebanese father/husband teaching at Harvard, whose life revolves around the telling of anecdotes about loss, and around conferences where he guest lectures; the mother, a beautiful Italian woman who is a well-known practicing artist (Nora has tried her hand at art and living the life of an artist, all with no success), and the beautiful child, like the one she never had nor ever will.

Nora allows herself to become entwined and used by this family–used casually, and rather deliberatively:  she volunteers to baby sit, often (elementary school teachers are known to hate doing sitting, and spending even more time with children ), and she takes a studio in a blighted part of Boston, which she shares with Sirena (a great name), whose ambitions are vast: she must prepare for a career-making installation/video in Paris for the following year, and she begins to rely heavily on Nora for assistance in making her art, as well as for company and those shared moments of intimacy:  sweets brought and eaten together; confidences seemingly shared; art encouraged and the like:  Nora sees in Sirena everything she wishes she were , while part of her is aware that she has created an elaborate fantasy about and around a family who seems exotic, sophisticated and worldly to her.  She even tries to persuade herself and her best friend, who is a lesbian, that her feelings about Sirena are some long bottled up sexual awakening.  The reader knows that the bubble will burst, but not how.

When the family departs, of course, Nora is thrown into mourning; contact is minimal, but she does get herself to go to Paris and visit them (you can’t go home again….) and where a monstrous betrayal awaits her.

Nora is likeable and generally self-aware, and her lonely existence , we understand, isn’t enough for her, though it looks admirable from the outside.  Much of the conversations between and amongst these characters takes place in Nora’s head, a subtle and very effective mechanism for a woman used to being alone, and perhaps for an author not entirely comfortable with the give and take of dialogue.

My problem with this novel is that its plot seems virtually borrowed, if not lifted, from any number of novels by the great English novelist Anita Brookner. Brookner’s territory has long been that single woman with a decent, if unexciting job, who is extremely astute about other people, observant, intelligent, and painfully lonely. These women are slightly past their prime, as the saying once went, and they have settled into dignified if excrutiating lives.  They often do one thing entirely, or seemingly out of character: have a fling (which will neither last nor work); go on a holiday wrong for them; interact with the contemporary worlds that her characters actually despise: their loneliness is mitigated, however, by their extraordinary dignity and just enough amour propre to get by after the fling, after the aberrant, after the love, has passed.

I have no idea if Claire Messud has read Brookner, but, oddly, the remarkable similarity to Brookner tempered my strong affection for Nora and for the novel itself. The Woman Upstairs (the title refers, of course, to that neighbor whose life seems settled, comfortable, “sensible”, to use a Brookner or Barbara Pym word. I am no more comfortable with Messud than I was before I read this excellent book, but I certainly recommend the novel.  One of the titles to one of Brookner’s first novels was originally Look At Me!, which was later changed to The Debut. I still feel as if it’s Messud yelling Look at Me, rather than her characters.

—Daniel Brown

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, by Teddy Wayne, is a very fine novel about an eleven-year old “tween” pop star, whose career and travels are all managed by his hyperwired but ultimately likeable, if pushy, stage mother. The insights which Wane brings to bear on this old world of fame, alleged glamour, money, groupies, and the relationships between and amongst publicists, agents, dance coaches, school tutors, and Jonny’s warm up groups is subtlely delineated: Jonny is an industry, and he is just barely aware of how many people’s livelihoods depend upon his singing and dancing, and his remaining way out of the realm of any normalcy: the greatest strength of this novel is Jonny’s slowly evolving sense of his power and importance: his underlying decency mitigates against any sense of his being a brat, thankfully: Wayne has far more complicted ideas to get across to us–the price paid by such early celebrity isn’t just what it costs Jonny, or his mother.

A brilliant scene will take place in St. Louis, a tour stop on Jonny’s round the country trip culminating in New York: not only will local television cameras stage a real reunion with the boy who used to be Jonny’s best friend from elementary school (the visit is beyond a disaster), but the tv anchor insists on taking his mother to the grocery store where she once bagged groceries for a living: her frozen fear and horror at coming through the doors of the store; her attempt at hiding her identity inside just as another “bagger” recognizes and trashes her–all make for very human and searing moments within an entirely artificial life that both mother and son have fought hard to achieve: both have been abandonded, by father/husband.

Jonny’s lonely mother also has her private wants and needs, shadowy men who lurk on the outside of Jonny’s consciousness; Jonny himself, easing into an adolescence none of his handlers wants to happen, is set up on fake ice-cream “dates” by studio publicisits and even he is baffled by the fakery of it; his determination to have a “groupie” come back to his room (at the Netherland after a concert in Cincinnati, incidentally) is ruined by his inability to ejaculate, yet.  His wonderful bodyguard is fired, rehired by mom the agent, as are many other very loyal members of this staff, as they wander though America on costly tour buses:  Jonny’s desire for acceptance from the nineteen year old guys in his warm -up act almost ruins his entire career; he is still unaware of how easily he will be/ is used.

Love Song is a powerful novel, very topical, strangely moving: we do know one thing, and that’s that Jonny will never, ever have any semblance of a normal life–unless his career fails.  Love Song is a cautionary tale for our celebrity-obsessed era.

—-Daniel Brown

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