THE ROOM UPSTAIRS by Norma Levinson


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One year in the life of 30-ish narrator Leah Lazarus--a London teacher who makes her debut as a landlady, continues her heart-rending work with deprived/ disturbed children. . . and finds true love at last. Dumped by a boyfriend, physically assaulted by a wild child at a mental hospital, fed up with a filthy roommate, Leah finally decides to gather together all available funds (from parents, brother, and even matchmaking Auntie Sarah)--to buy a suburban house for personal use and rental business. Among the tenants: a beautiful Indian couple; pregnant waif Mandy; medical student Dinah; and M. Rosenfeld, ""a remarkably plain, sour-looking, middle-aged German Jew."" Soon, with much guilt, Leah is having a brief affair with the philandering Indian husband. But, very slowly, it's stern, wise, omniscient M. Rosenfeld, the quiet Mr. Fixit of the household (rescuing the Indian wife from attempted suicide, overseeing Mandy's pregnancy), who becomes Leah's obhque, intense suitor--as she eventually learns his Holocaust history and his first name. (""How did Jane ever bring herself to call Mr. Rochester Edward? Charlotte didn't explain this daunting leap into intimacy. Morris. How strange it sounds!"") All this is pleasantly handled in Levinson's chatty, modestly engaging first novel. What gives this debut some distinction, however, is what also gives Leah stature and a rock-solid core of sympathy--her ever-shifting teaching assignments from a tough social-service agency. Leah's primary cases: West Indian girl Muriel, pregnant at twelve (probably incest); juvenile delinquent Susan, a ""nice kid"" who just can't be taught to feel pity for the old woman she beat up; grotesquely fat Jackie, locked in a ghastly folie à deux with her madwoman mother; Celia--deaf, blind, suicidal. And, though Leah's attempts to teach and befriend these near-hopeless students occasionally lurch into sentimentality, most of the material is plain, stark, and upsetting. More a stitching of episodes than a full-dimensioned novel, then--part blandly agreeable, part disturbing, but a likable grab-bag overall.

Pub Date: Oct. 3rd, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster