Mini-reviews: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell and The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

vanishingactTitle: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: Let us begin with two girls at a dance.

Goodreads blurb: In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage-clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for more than sixty-one years.

Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face.

Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But she’s still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?

This is my first experience with O’Farrell’s fiction, and I absolutely loved her writing. This was an odd story, with a tricky romantic relationship for Iris, as well as the mystery of this great-aunt she never knew existed. The story is tragic on many levels. I wasn’t crazy about the ending, but the writing was so beautiful that I loved it anyway.

womanupstairsTitle: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Genre: Contemporary fiction, literary fiction
Publisher: Random House Audio
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Cassandra Campbell
Audiobook length: 11 hours and 1 minute
First line: How angry am I?

Goodreads blurb: Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents–dashing Skandar, a half-Muslim Professor of Ethical History born in Beirut, and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist–have come to America for Skandar to teach at Harvard.

But one afternoon, Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who punch, push and call him a “terrorist,” and Nora is quickly drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family. Soon she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries–until Sirena’s own ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.

The main reason I checked this out is because the audio is narrated by Cassandra Campbell, and I love her work. I was also curious after reading some mixed reviews, as well as an article in which Messud complained about people saying they didn’t like the main character. Well, I didn’t particularly like the main character. I thought Nora was self-pitying and obsessive. But, Messud is right in saying that you don’t have to like a character in order to like a book, because I actually really enjoyed this one. The relationships were intense, and I was continually off-balance because I was only hearing the story from Nora’s perspective. You know from the beginning that Nora is completely enraged over something that happens, and then the book is a slow burn to that culminating event. I was completely hooked at the end.

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15 Responses to Mini-reviews: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell and The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

  1. Beth Hoffman says:

    I so agree with you, Carrie. While I wasn’t particularly fond of Nora, I ended up thoroughly enjoying the book. And that’s saying a lot, because historically, when I don’t like the main character, I have a hard time finishing a book. I think Claire Messud did an excellent job and I found Nora to be fascinating.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Beth – I usually don’t like a book if I don’t like the main character, either – it really is a testament to her skill that I enjoyed this one as much as I did.

  2. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread
    says:

    I was so torn on whether to read Messud’s book or not. People were not luke warm here…they either loved it or hated it passionately. Just this second I made a deal with myself…IF I can find it on audio, I’ll read it.
    Sandy´s last post ..A Place at the Table – Susan Rebecca White (Audio)

  3. bermudaonion (Kathy)
    Twitter: bermudaonion
    says:

    They both sound good but I’d like to try O’Farrell’s writing so I’d probably pick up The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox first.
    bermudaonion (Kathy)´s last post ..Review: Paperboy

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathy – I am looking forward to reading more from her – my library has all of her books, fortunately.

  4. JoAnn @Lakeside Musing
    Twitter: lakesidemusing
    says:

    I want to read Maggie O’Farrell and bought The Hand That First Held Mine after Matt raved about it (nearly 2 years ago!)… hopefully soon.

    The Woman Upstairs was a 5 star read for me. Almost wish I’d listened because Cassandra Campbell is a favorite. Nora isn’t exactly likable, but I thought the writing and story were superb.
    JoAnn @Lakeside Musing´s last post ..The Age of Innocence and a Perfect Day

  5. Vasilly
    Twitter: Vasilly
    says:

    Oh! I really want to read these two books now! Is Campbell the same narrator for The Help?
    Vasilly´s last post ..Sunday Salon

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      V – Yes, Campbell was one of the narrators for The Help. She also narrates the Adriana Trigiani Valentine series, which is awesome on audio.

  6. Both of these are books I have waiting in my TBR stacks to read. I am glad you enjoyed them, Carrie!
    Literary Feline´s last post ..Bookish Thoughts: Backlash by Lynda La Plante

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Wendy – don’t we all have a lot of great books waiting on our TBR lists? What a great thing to have!

  7. Melissa
    Twitter: avidreader12
    says:

    I read Vanishing and had no idea it was going to deal with institutionalizing women. I thought it was fasciniating!
    Melissa´s last post ..L is for Lawless and M is for Malice

  8. Pingback: The Sunday Salon – October 27, 2013 (Lots to catch up on!) | BOOKS AND MOVIES

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