3 new novels featuring risk-taking protagonists

Whether it's exploring early 20th-century New York by night or the chance to escape a terrible family by going to school, these three authors have created protagonists whose lives are transformed by their choices.

1. 'The Woman Upstairs,' by Claire Messud

Nora Eldridge has been a good girl for 42 years, and she's had enough. Her fury explodes from the very first sentence of Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs.

“How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

“I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl, I'm a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody's boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend ... and I'm not a girl anyhow, I'm over 40 [expletive deleted] years old, and I'm good at my job and I'm great with kids and I held my mother's hand while she was dying and I speak to my father every day on the telephone....” and she might, perhaps, be protesting too much. But her anger at the shrunken role she's expected to be content with will resonate with anyone who never wrote that great American screenplay or got the big promotion or won the girl. Which is to say, most of us.

The title comes from Nora's term for herself. She is not, she says, to be confused with the madwoman in the attic.

“We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, without a [expletive deleted] tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.”

Nora lost her color and form during the years she was helping care for her mother, who was diagnosed with ALS disease. Instead of being a great artist, Nora got to be a third-grade teacher at Appleton Elementary in Cambridge, Mass.

In “The Woman Upstairs,” readers find out how Nora got so angry. Unsurprisingly, a soured love fuels her rage. The only thing is, Nora didn't fall in love with a person, but rather an entire family.

Sirena Shahid has exactly the life Nora wanted for herself: She's an installation artist and mother of Nora's favorite pupil, Reza. She's even from Paris. Her attractive husband, Skandar, is a successful academic spending a year at Harvard. Nora becomes obsessed with all three Shahids, who adopt her as a mascot/pseudo-aunt. “The Woman Upstairs” follows what Nora sees as one of the happiest times in her life – a chance for professional and personal flowering.

Sirena invites Nora to share studio space with her. Her latest project is an outsized, multimedia take on “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.” (Nora is thrilled to act as an unpaid assistant and provide free babysitting.) Nora, meanwhile, is building miniature dollhouses of Emily Dickinson's and Virginia Woolf's rooms. At this point, her artistic ambition can fit in a shoebox, with room for a pair of sensibly-heeled pumps to spare.

Echoes of Henrik Ibsen's “A Doll House,” and its main character, Nora, can't be accidental, but Messud explicitly references Anton Chekhov's story, “The Black Monk,” in which a supernatural visitant promises genius to a scholar. 

Nora sees her relationship with the Shahids as a last chance for happiness, and ignores all long-term implications of what would happen if she gets what she wants.

How much of the relationship is a product of Nora's fantasy life is an ongoing question. Is Sirena taking advantage of Nora's adoration, or is Nora insinuating herself into cracks in the Shahids' marriage? Is the family deliberately manipulating her, or has her obsession crossed over the line into “Single White Female” territory? Nora is disarmingly self-aware – she admits that if she heard her own story about anyone else, she would assume the person was “unhinged.”

Messud is a tremendously smart, accomplished writer, but “The Woman Upstairs” doesn't quite have the range of her 2006 novel “The Emperor's Children.” Part of it is that readers spend the novel waiting for a detonation that never comes. Nora builds up all that energizing fury, but we never get to see her explode.

But what the novel does, in spades, is give a voiceless woman a chance to howl.

1 of 3

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.