Obsession Examined

Reviewed by Jan Lermitte

Dennis Bock’s latest novel Going Home Again explores themes of loss, middle age, and obsession in the context of modern family life. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs similarly engages with these themes, but with a passionate intensity that is both compelling and challenging. Although both stories are marked by betrayal and loss through surprise endings, readers are left with a sense of hope in the way human beings can survive and thrive in seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Bock’s novel, a finalist for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize, departs from historical fiction (like Olympia and The Ash Garden), through a contemporary story of family breakdown and the impact of past secrets on present reality. Charlie Bellrose is an entrepreneurial language teacher grappling with “bachelorhood” after his marital separation. His relationship with his daughter suffers when he moves to Toronto to distance himself from his life in Madrid. Charlie’s new life in Canada is haunted by the past as he returns to the city of his childhood and the home of his brother, Nate, a troubled soul navigating a vicious divorce. When he unexpectedly encounters Holly, his first love, Charlie becomes somewhat obsessed with her, despite the fact that she is married and has children. The novel then develops through a series of flashbacks in which Bock recounts Charlie’s youth, his friendships, and his move to Spain where he begins his career and starts a family with Isabel, his Spanish lover. Passion, unacknowledged secrets, and betrayal lurk in the edges of the story. As Charlie re-examines his past in light of his present, two tragic events become the locus of the story. Throughout, Charlie is both insider and outsider: he draws closer to his brother and nephews, he imagines a new (yet impossible) future with Holly, and he remains separated from his family in Madrid. Only as Charlie comes to terms with reality is he able to imagine living with hope and possible reconciliation with Isabel and their daughter, Ava. Bock writes sparingly, and with an ease that emotionally draws in the reader, who can relate as a sibling, parent, spouse, or “ex” to aspects of Charlie’s story. Charlie’s hope becomes our hope, and we imagine finding fulfillment in the midst of life’s complexity and suffering.

The Woman Upstairs shares elements with Going Home Again: an outsider who longs to be an insider, an examination of obsession, a dissection of the idea of “family,” an extended flashback, a heart-breaking surprise. However, Messud’s novel centres on a female character, Nora Elridge, the proverbial “woman upstairs” who is quiet, responsible, and basically “invisible” and who admits in the opening pages that she is furious. The reasons behind her anger remain unclear until the novel’s conclusion, but we marvel at her growing obsession with the exotic Shahid family. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Messud describes her desire to create a character who explores the range of possibilities of socially unacceptable emotions. She states, “if it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.” Such a goal would seem important to contemporary readers interested in “outsiders”—those elided from “traditional” views of family, work, or lifestyle.

Messud magnificently captures this anger—portrayed through the protagonist, a woman who puts aside her own ambitions to care for her dying mother, and who then must come to terms with her losses: her mother, her plans to be an artist, her dreams to have a family of her own. Her complex relationship with the Shahids rekindles these buried desires and, for a while, Nora imagines that her fantasies are possible. The dramatic betrayal at the end of the novel connects readers with Nora’s anger in the opening chapter. We feel her pain and reel in shock ourselves. How could they? What really happened? Who knows the truth? The novel suddenly becomes a delicious, gossipy whodunit, and the needy, obsessed Nora is the primary victim. However, Messud’s theme is not so simple. She asks us to consider questions of morality and, as she states in her interview, “how then must we live?” This she says “is at the heart of it, for me.”

Although Bock and Messud examine similar themes, it is Messud’s book that forces nuanced questions about reality, relationships, art, and women’s roles. Bock’s story is well written and compelling, but it is Messud’s The Woman Upstairsthat kept me turning the pages long into the night.

This review “Obsession Examined” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 128-29.

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