Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

May 11, 2013 

Fiction

The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud, Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages

Nora Eldridge is “the woman upstairs” in Claire Messud’s new novel – “the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway,” with tidy trash, a bright smile and dashed dreams of being an artist. When the novel opens, she is ready to kill the glamorous, globe-trotting artist/academic couple who cruelly betrayed her. That would be Sirena Shahid, an Italian-born installation and video artist on the cusp of fame, and her Lebanese-born husband, Skandar, an academic at Harvard for a year to write a book. Their 8-year-old son, Reza, is enrolled in Nora’s class at a progressive school.

The two women become friends after Reza is bullied in the schoolyard, and Sirena rekindles Nora’s smoldering desire to make significant art. Forty-two when the book starts, she has suffered from artist’s block for years because, she believes, she lacks the ruthless gene necessary for greatness. The Siren, of course, has it in spades.

Messud does a fine job of building suspense as she constructs the intricate machinery necessary to thoroughly humiliate Nora. We know her relationship with the Shahids will end badly, we just don’t know how.

In Messud’s fictional world, Nora and Sirena occupy opposite ends of a character spectrum that runs from pathetic self-abnegation to pathological narcissism. Unfortunately, neither one is much fun to be with. Associated Press

Paris: The Novel

Edward Rutherfurd, Doubleday, 832 pages

Paris has been both good and bad to the aristocratic de Cygne family over the centuries. While one generation was welcome at the nearby court of Versailles, another faced the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.

Edward Rutherfurd’s latest historical novel tracks the de Cygnes and a few other families from 1261 to 1968 as Paris evolves from a medieval outpost to world-class metropolis. His primary focus is on the cohort born later in the 19th century who grew up to witness the existential threat to Paris in two world wars.

He spends time up and down the social ladder in “Paris,” but he seems to prefer the chateau over the hovel. The wealthier characters tend to be more fully drawn. And with so many characters over so many centuries, some seem to merely exist to keep some plot thread moving or to show off some facet of the city.

Rutherfurd does provide good glimpses of Paris as it was, like the old Knights Templar fortress and a stumpy Eiffel Tower halfway finished. But since he’s time jumping, he has to redraw Paris again and again.

Rutherfurd takes it up a notch in the last part of the book, set in occupied Paris during World War II. In this long, climactic section, Rutherfurd succeeds best at describing the actual mood of the city under Nazi rule. Some characters respond heroically, another cynically, leading to a familial reckoning that is both tense and enjoyable to read.

Associated Press

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