I liked this book. It was compelling and entertaining and thought provoking. It was also very salient to my daily life and so I might have found it better than it otherwise would be. I wavered between a 4 and 5 star rating on this, but ultimately knocked it down to 4 stars because I am not sure about the prejudices of relevancy (and so am erroring on the side of a lower rating) and because I was not crazy about the ending (but not probably for the typical reasons).
I recognize that I am a woman (at the risk of tempting Fate..but isn’t not admiting to this worse?) who could be accused of having it all. I am happily married (18 years w/my hubby last week); we have two beautiful, intelligent (if somewhat precocious) boys; I run a successful business from what should be the dining room of my house; and we all enjoy good health and upper middle class standing. I represent exactly what “the woman upstairs” envies and am oftentimes as unappreciative of it as Sirena (in my defense who isn’t? and really, isn’t the human condition just to want more? more of whatever we currently don’t have?).
Messud sets up the connundrum that many of us (not just the woman upstairs) faces: “I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you’re taught to eat your greens before you have dessert. But it turns out that’s a rule for girls and sissies, because the mountain of greens is of Everest proportions, and the bowl of ice cream at the far end of the table is melting a little more with each passing second.” I did not find Nora despicable. I found her enteratining and endearing; I thought she was believable and could frequently see myself in her “good-girl-ness” and her “mid-life crisis” (such a trite phrase for the emotional rollercoaster which accompanies the realization that the actualization of one’s life is not the same as one’s inner wishes and desires and MOST IMPORTANTLY one has missed the opportunity for these lives to ever actually align). Messud capably asserts: “Life is about deciding what matters. It’s about the fantasy that determines the reality.” and later: “What is imaginary--our friendships, my loves, these people, my invention—is untouchable, if not inviolate. And then, there is reality: there is what happens, what you know, or think you know, with certainty. But maybe these two are ultimately one; maybe you can’t protect the one from the other.” I enjoyed reading about Nora; I enjoyed that Messud hinted at Sirena’s own unhappiness.
About 2/3rds of the way through the book, I worried about resolution. I realized that I was satisfied with the tone of the story and I would have been very disappointed to have it end poorly. I knew that Nora was angry and anticipated that something big would have to happen, but was concerned that a confrontation would lack consistency with the tone of the novel (and Nora’s character) and that perfect resolution and conflict would ruin the story. I liked that it just fizzled and things ended (as they often do in life) without any forced drama. And then, Nora went to Paris. Ultimately, Nora is betrayed by the camera and the questions that she faces at the end (whether Sirena knew about her night with Skander; whether Skander knew about Nora’s night of “freedom and release”; and whether Skander and Sirena discussed any of it prior to Skander coming to Nora) provided enough loose ends to satisfy on that front. However, I was not convinced that it was necessary. I think the novel would have been more powerful if the reader was made more aware of the existence of the videos but Nora was left in the dark. I did not think that Nora’s discovery or her anger added to the book.
All of that said, there were some great turns of phrase and poignant commentary in the novel:
“every one of us is capable of rage…you must have a modicum of self control.”
“and that hunger of one kind or another—desire, by another name—is the source of almost every sorrow.”
“It’s the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate. Even when people try to say things, they say them poorly, or obliquely, or they outright lie, sometimes because they’re lying to you, but as often because they’re lying to themselves.”
“I was always remembering him, a physical memory, like an imprint in the earth. There is, I came to realize, what the mind wants and what the body wants. The mind can excite the body, but its desires can also be false; whereas the body, the animal, wants what it wants.”
Overall it was a good read. Some of the “feminism” was a bit over the top and heavy handed (and as someone who just finished Greer’s The Female Eunuch I feel entitled to call what Messud is preaching “feminism” rather than feminism), but the writing flowed well and the emotional representation was believable.