A novel about an outsider

"The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud, Knopf, 264 pages, $25.95.

Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Mass., is a reliable neighbor who has always lived on the fringe of other people's lives. She wanted to become an artist.

A new student, 8-year-old Reza Shahid, comes in to her class. His mother, Sirena, is an Italian artist. His father Skandar, is a Lebanese professor who has come to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard. When Reza is bullied, Nora becomes friends with the family.

But she becomes more than a friend. She and Sirena begin sharing an art studio and Nora becomes obsessed with the Shahid family. Although she knows that they are going to only be in Cambridge for one year, her life begins to revolve around them.

This novel really drags. The middle is very muddled and Nora constantly explains her actions.

***

"The Third Son" by Julie Wu, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 310 pages, $24.95.

In Taiwan in 1943, Saburo is the least-favored son. He has six brothers and sisters. His parents blame him for his younger brother's death.

Some bureaucrat decides the best thing for the school to do during air raids is to send the children running home. Saburo is on his way home during an air raid when he hears a girl crying. She has fallen. Her name is Yoshiko. He helps her and she talks about her loving family. He thinks about her for years. The next time Saburo sees Yoshiko she is with his oldest brother.

As Saburo gets older, he wants to be an engineer. He takes an exam to study in America and succeeds, but his family wants him to return to Taiwan to help the family.

While "The Third Son" is fascinating when it is set in Taiwan, it changes when Saburo gets to America. It becomes unrealistic and dull.

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