When I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs I loved it. The protagonist was a middle-age, single woman who was angry about a lot of life. For some this anger was off-putting and there were reviewers who found the woman (Nora) disagreeable and depressing. I certainly felt sympathy for her situation but by and large, even when she made me uncomfortable, Nora was a character I could understand. So when Messud was interviewed by Publisher’s Weekly and the interviewer said it must have been hard to write about someone you wouldn’t want to be friends with, Messud was swift to point out how many great characters there have been in literature that were unlikable and that, in fact, this was a ridiculous question. This caused a bit of a stir in the publishing/book world. Some agreed with Messud and felt it was a gender issue—that a male author would never be asked about writing an unlikable character. Others felt Messud was too prickly and had overreacted. I agreed with Messud, mostly because I thought it was a silly, almost childish question but it did make me think about what I need when I read. My route to the answer will be a bit circuitous but bear with me.
I recently finished Jennifer Close’s new book, The Smart One. In the novel we meet the Coffey women: Claire, Martha, and Weezy. Weezy is the mother of Claire and Martha, young women in their late twenties. By page 100 Claire has broken up with her fiancé and accrued such debt that she has to move back home with her parents. Martha was a nurse but burned out after only a few months and also lives at home, while working in a J. Crew store. Both are whiny and neurotic—a bad combination. Some of their issues are clarified upon meeting Weezy, a woman with no life of her own, trying to live through her daughters. Her children living at home is exactly what she wants AND gives her something to complain about. She is alternately energized and enervated by the situation.
What I learned? That I don’t have to like the characters in a novel but they have to hold my interest and, generally, evoke some kind of response, be it understanding or pity or even just making me think (with situations that are so far removed from my personal experience that I keep reading.) I got none of that in The Smart One. I am familiar with any number of the events in this novel but could not find a single emotion in the Coffey family to which I could relate. Weezy is alternately cloying and overprotective (of Martha) and dismissive and stand-offish (with Claire). Martha is that blend of know-it-all, entitled victim that makes me want to eat ground glass.
Claire never understood the way Martha got almost giddy when there was a tragedy or drama. She fed off of it. She could find a problem in any situation, even the most pleasant. But when there was a real problem, that’s where she really thrived.
And for Claire, life itself seems to be too confusing and requiring too much effort. There’s no clear-cut sense of why this is, she simply stumbles along.
I persevered and finished the book. There are lessons learned and the circle of life is completed but it was too little too late. The characters in The Smart One met none of my criteria for books I enjoy. Not only did I not like them but I could not understand them. Each felt like a paper cutout of a real woman—no substance and with emotions that only reflected stereotypes about women.
Close writes well and there are many small moments inside the characters’ heads that ring true (and made me laugh out loud) but overall it was not enough. For me, interesting trumps likable.Jennifer Close
Published by Knopf
Publication date: April 2, 2013