‘The Woman Upstairs’ vs. ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’

November 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Posted in Great for Book Clubs, Instructions for a Heatwave, Middle Weight Fiction, The Woman Upstairs | 3 Comments
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‘The Woman Upstairs’ vs. ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’

I love both Claire Messud and Maggie O’Farrell. They are both accomplished, polished storytellers and professionals of emotionally awakening prose. In 2006 Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperors Children’ moved me in a way no other piece of literature had. And in 2005 I sacrificed much sleep in reading Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘The Distance Between us’.

‘The Woman Upstairs’                                                             Image

‘The Woman Upstairs’ deals with a very interesting and perhaps under-explored topic that of a woman’s disillusion with her place in the world and the crushing binds of familial duty.

Women are expected to be good and nice and ‘The Woman Upstairs’ shows this to be a perennial and generation busting expectation even in the 21st Century. But most importantly ‘The Woman Upstairs’ deals with the unapologetic and growing anger a woman feels when she finds the time to think broadly about her life in this context.

Messud’s leading heroine Nora Eldridge is mad as hell when we first meet her;

‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know.’

Nora desired to be a fine artist but was counseled by her parents to become a teacher instead and have a stable career. Familial circumstances then caused her to devote much time to taking care of her terminally ill mother and then  her aging father to the detriment of her own life and dreams. These limits in her life caused her to develop feelings of self-doubt and cowardice that prevented her from living fully and without fear.

A new young pupil in Nora’s elementary school brings into her life an exotic and beautiful family of Lebanese origin. True scholars and artists they bring Nora into their glamorous life of culture and freedom. Nora at lasts tastes the life she has always dreamed of but quickly becomes precariously close with each member of the family as they become for her the family she never had.

The prose and plot is not perhaps as captivating as that of ‘The Emperors Children’ but this novel is just as important as it asks in every chapter questions about a woman’s place in the world, it questions the real and unrealistic expectations of a woman and looks at the importance of a woman’s relationship with herself.

    ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’                              Image

Set in London during the heatwave of 1976 ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ is a novel based around a family of five whose patriarch tells his wife he is popping out for a newspaper and never comes back.

This brings the three adult children back together to their family home as the search for the AWOL father gets underway. In close proximity to each other the children’s own problems and life situations leak out and brew all hot summer long. As we learn about the human problems each adult child faces the novel becomes a great depiction of a real family facing down difficult marriages, lost dreams, unplanned pregnancies and the worst parts of their personalities hotting up under the pressure of the heatwave.

The reader never assumes one member of the family could have a known explanation for the fathers leaving or that the intimacy of this secret could bring the family closer together. One of Maggie O’Farrell’s greatest traits as an author is to find intimacy in unusual places; in explosive secrets, in geographical distances or in different life choices and how they can help one to appreciate another. Set against the raging summer heat the secrets of the novel cook to boiling point and perhaps like a full moon the characters are unusually affected by the unrelenting high temperature of the summer of 1976.

Maggie O’Farrell’s novels love to suggest that families and marriages are not always as they seem and that secrets may often be at their best when revealed. This latest novel does just that and is a delicious and rapturous addition to her catalogue.

Haiku; The woman upstairs, finds herself in the heatwave, with no more secrets

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3 Comments »

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  1. Great reviews as always. I like your new habit of comparing and contrasting novels that one wouldn’t necessarily think have much in comment. It brings out aspects of both that a more conventional review wouldn’t.

  2. Great reviews as ever Sarah. This time I have not read either book and am very interested in reading them both having read your review, and especially your excellent comparison. I’ll start with Instructions…as this is my era! Really looking forward to it. many thanks Poppy

    • Thanks Poppy I’m so pleased you enjoy the reviews


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