REVIEW: THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, BY CLAIRE MESSUD

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What is the nature of love? What would an individual do for her art? And what betrayal could transform a person into someone no longer invisible? Someone who could finally and truly live?

In the opening lines of The Woman Upstairs, our protagonist and first person narrator, Nora Eldridge, is expressing her rage. And as she lashes out, she lists all of the traits that make her a good person: she is a good teacher, a daughter who held her dying mother’s hand, a daughter who speaks to her father every day.

She is now a woman looking back at a time in her life. A time that consumed more of her than imaginable, and almost turned her permanently into the woman outside the main action. Someone who is looking on while others succeed; someone who draws her primary sustenance from the crumbs of another family’s table.

The Year of the Shahids was that time for Nora, when she became obsessed with each of them, starting with the son, Reza, a student in her third grade class in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His mother, an artist, and someone Nora would like to emulate, is Sirena: beautiful, talented, and with the ability to draw Nora into her web. Yes, to me, looking on, it feels like a web. But maybe that is just my perception. It does not seem to be Nora’s view. She falls a little bit in love with the husband/father, too: Skandara, a charming intellectual.

She ends up sharing an artist’s studio with Sirena, and becoming a part of the family. Almost. There are times when she sinks into her invisibility again, dependent on the crumbs from their table.

A fascinating tale, one in which we see what happens to Nora during that obsessive year; we watch her afterwards, how she keeps tabs on them after they have returned to Paris, via Google alerts; and then there are the following years when she goes to Paris and sees the famous installation of Wonderland…and is stunned by a finding that will finally unleash her rage.

A truly captivating read that reveals several unlikeable and self-absorbed characters, and even the protagonist is someone you might want to warn about how things will truly play out in the end. But, like most people, she had to learn her own lessons and come to her own realizations. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: THE CARRIER, BY SOPHIE HANNAH

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Gaby Struthers is waiting for her plane, the one that will return her home to England after a long day of business in Germany. But the plane has been delayed, and a horrific young woman is shrieking, sobbing, and carrying on, disturbing everyone around her. Unfortunately, this scene is just the beginning of what will be Gaby’s association with the young woman, Lauren Cookson, whose life is seemingly linked to hers in unexpected ways.

Thus begins the twisted tale, The Carrier (A Zailer & Waterhouse Mystery), another journey into a muddled murder with the usual suspects of quirky detectives trying to solve the case. There is Charlie Zailer, the most likeable of them all, in my opinion, but she, for some reason, has chosen to marry Simon Waterhouse, who is beyond neurotic…but also interesting. And smart.

Then there is their boss, Proust, whom everyone calls The Snowman.

Who was murdered? A woman named Francine Breary, and her husband Tim has confessed. But doesn’t know why he murdered her, supposedly.

The host of strange characters extends to those who have been like the cast of a weird play, surrounding Tim and Francine, all living in a posh house owned by Dan and Kerry Jose, who were investors in Gaby’s business years before. See, strange connections.

When the police, who are not satisfied with Tim’s confession, begin to question all of these people individually, they are even more puzzled. It is clear that everyone is lying…but why?

Soon we realize some of the connections, and why Gaby is central in much of what is happening. She has been in love with Tim for years…but he wouldn’t leave his wife, who has reportedly treated him horribly, and everyone else has been witness to it. He did leave once, but then returned when she had a stroke, which is her condition for a while prior to her death.

The story takes us through the mysterious case via alternating perspectives, and then occasionally we are offered a series of letters that, for me, were the one negative in it all. Written by each of those who lived with Tim and Francine, they were addressed to Francine herself, and then hidden in the mattress. It was obvious that she would never read the letters…and their presence in the story was confusing. There was a point near the end where they turned out to be somewhat helpful…but not in the way one would expect.

I had pretty much figured out who had actually killed Francine early on, but the whys and wherefores took a while to figure out. And throughout, Gaby continued to stand by Tim, but I could not understand why. In my opinion, he was beyond weird and not even a little bit appealing. But the story is a psychological study as well as a mystery, and as we ponder why any of the characters like or love each other, we are taken on an exploration that is both fascinating and puzzling. Except for the odd letters, I enjoyed the story enough to award four stars.