Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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When a book description backfires —

I mean, this book review is meant to sound intriguing and inviting and I think the writer of the review expects to hook your interest and get you to add it to your Must Check It Out List. But, just, no. The book is THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud. The review is fascinating, in kind of the same way that a train wreck is fascinating: I read the whole thing with a sense of horror, unable to look away.

“This is a novel in which very little happens. Yet it is also an addictive page-turner, and written with such artistry that the reader can do little but succumb. Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling.”

Does that sound possible to you? Have you ever read a book in which nothing happens, yet it’s a page-turner?

Actually, the closest I can think of is AN INTERIOR LIFE, by Katherine Blake, which is a fantasy novel I read a good long time ago. The thing is, there are twin plots, and the one dealing with Susan’s mundane everyday life actually draws you in more than the one dealing with the fantasy elements. Or so it was for me. It’s all, Watch Susan Paint The House! Watch Susan Deal With This Dinner Party! And yet all that part is somehow charming and interesting.

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS might be interesting, I guess, in theory, but it does not sound very appealing as you go on to read more of the review.

“It opens in the first person with a litany of foul-mouthed complaints that comes as a shock to anyone familiar with Messud’s usual Jamesian prose style. Here is the story of an angry woman whose explosive rage settles into a sense of threat that pulls us along with it, eager to discover its source.”

Um . . . I’m kind of thinking, when I read this, that this kind of opening would actually be a huge turnoff. I don’t think I would feel much interest in discovering the source of this protagonist’s rage. I think I would be more inclined to run away and hide from this protagonist. In fact, it’s this bit of the description, more than the bit about nothing much happening, which makes me feel like I am not very likely at all to read this book.

Then it gets worse:

“Nora Eldridge is a “straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter” who has spent four years looking after her dying mother. Now 42 and responsible for her father, she is an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a frustrated artist dragging abandoned hopes, with no partner and a vivid life of the mind. In her “calcifying spinsterdom”, she is the ubiquitous “woman upstairs”: accommodating, anonymous, almost invisible.”

Please imagine for a moment that this book was written by Sarah Addison Allen. We could have this EXACT character, and yet she would be non-calcified and non-angry, or if she was angry it would be in a good way, and the book would turn out to be a delightful and charming romance with little fantasy bits around the edges.

Not that I require the romance, necessarily, to find the book charming. Allen would do something with some kind of family relationships even if she didn’t put in a romance, and it would still be a quietly beautiful story. “Quietly beautiful is not what THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS is aiming for, obviously. I’m just saying that you could take the same basic backstory and write a character who is not bitter and angry and alienated.

Plus, may I just mention here that, as an unmarried forty-something woman with a vivid life of the mind, I don’t actually feel like a victim of “calcifying spinsterdom”? Good God, “spinsterdom”? What century is this?

It’s really like this whole book description was written to specifically turn me off. I mean, get this:

“The Woman Upstairs is a brave and highly risky novel in that it eschews any significant plot, state-of-the-nation ambition or high concept. It is a strictly artistic endeavour that also works as an entertainment. Kick-starting the story with a rant is a clever device, but it’s the quieter, brooding sense of foreboding, the intimation of disaster, that provides, along with the narrator’s voice, the novel’s engine.”

Oh, God, it’s a Brooding Sense of Foreboding. Excuse me while I run the other way. Fast.

So I’m curious: if you click through and read this review — do you think this book sounds like one to add to your Must Read list? Or like one to put some dedication into avoiding? I am really interested in just who would read this review and say, Wow, that sounds great!

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1 Comment When a book description backfires —

  1. Elaine T

    That’s the second review of THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS I’ve seen and neither made it sound at all appealing, although this one is worse. The other got into how it delved into the psychology of glomming on to someone else as the main character does, which sounded like it might actually be interesting were I ever in the mood for such a thing. (not likely to happen.)

    And, good heavens! You’ve read THE INTERIOR LIFE! I have the impression it mostly died on the vine – that’s the author’s version, anyway. It was a really odd book to come out of Baen, and they probably didn’t have a clue how to handle it. Those few who’ve read it seem to be very fond of it, though. The author’s name is really Dorothy Heydt, and she has a couple books published under her own name, but due to health issues doesn’t do much these days.

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