On this grey, wet, chilly Sunday morning, I am happy to look at the coffee table in front of me and see 2 things that make me happy: a hot cup of chai tea to wrap my cold hands around for warmth, and a book that I am really enjoying, which I will spend this afternoon reading, and hopefully finishing.
I finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell this past week, and it proved to be far better than I was expecting. I think last week I wrote that it was not a “great” read, but that it was short, with a fairly interesting storyline. Well, once I reached the halfway point, it got really interesting, and I couldn’t put it down! To recap, it tells the story of woman, Iris, who runs a vintage clothing shop and who is suddenly given the responsibility of caring for a great-aunt, Esme, whom she didn’t know existed until a few days before. Esme has spent the past 60 years, all of her adult life, in a mental institution, and Iris wants to find out why this happened. It seemed initially that the story was about Iris, and her struggles to find her way and purpose in life, but it turned out to be about so much more, particularly about the relationship between Esme and Kitty, Iris’ grandmother, when they were young. At the time of the story, Kitty is in a nursing home suffering from dementia, but her memories are offered to the reader in snippets, jumbled and inconsistent, yet intriguing, in a “pieces of the puzzle” sort of way. I would highly recommend this title to anyone who enjoys character-driven novels that deal with relationships and family secrets.
The book that is on the table in front of me right now is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, a title that we are considering for the committee I’m on. I’m halfway through, but can’t wait to make time to finish it. This story is told from the point of view of Nora Eldridge, an angry woman whose life plan included being an artist and having children (husband and money optional), but who instead grew up to become the dutiful daughter of her now deceased mother and ailing, lonely father, and favourite third-grade teacher in an elementary school in Boston. At age 37, Nora is despairing ever achieving anything resembling her life’s dreams, resigned to her role as “the Woman Upstairs”, unremarkable but reliable. Then the Shahid family enter her life. Mrs. Shahid is a successful artist, and Mr. Shahid is exactly the type of man Nora would fall for, but it is Reza, their eight-year-old son and student in her class, who most captures Nora’s heart, becoming the son she never had. She begins to live through them, separately and together, and believes that they are the keys to attaining her dreams. I don’t know what will happen, but something significant is surely on the horizon, because so far, the family members have been idealized all out of proportion, and Nora has risen so high in her expectations that she is sure to fall far and hard. This novel reminds me of two excellent books I’ve read in the past. The first is What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Remember that book? Maybe you remember the film, with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, about a bitter elderly teacher who becomes obsessed with the new young art teacher at her high school. This teacher begins an affair with one of her male students, which is, of course, scandalous for the school and for the family. The elderly teacher supports the new teacher, and her obsession grows. It is creepy in its insidiousness, yet all-too-believable. The other book that comes to mind is We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, about a woman who has an ideal marriage and no desire to have children, until she has a son, Kevin, with whom she has difficulty bonding and who grows up to be a sociopathic teen who, shortly before his 16th birthday, commits mass murder at his high school. It’s not the story that is necessarily so similar, but the writing styles are so much alike that I sometimes feel as though Eva Kachadourian (the mother in Kevin) is narrating instead of Nora. Both main characters are successful women who are angry at the way their lives have been dealt, but there is also an underlying feeling of resignation with both characters, as though they have come to accept, however bitterly, their roles in life. Anyway, I’m really excited to finish it, as I’m so curious what will ultimately happen to Nora and the Shahids. More on this book next week.
That’s all for today.
Bye for now…