“The main thing is to talk to someone. Otherwise, alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on.” The three floors, which also represent the three stages in Freud’s theory of personal development, are the framework for this lively tripartite novel by Eshkol Nevo, a highly admired Israeli author. Each of the three stories in the novel is set on one of three floors in a suburban Tel Aviv apartment building, and each one is told to someone in some way — three monologues on three emotionally different floors.
Arnon lives on the first floor with his wife and two young daughters. Obsessed with the idea that his nine-year-old daughter has in some way been sexually abused by an older neighbor, Arnon heightens the tension between him and his wife and drives himself into impulsive bursts of behavior. To relieve himself of his deepening problems, he texts an old friend, a writer, and in a restaurant blurts out his story.
On the second floor, Hani, a young mother with two children, has a husband who travels for business so much that Arnon and his wife refer to her as the widow. Hani’s grasp on reality is weakening. When she calls a psychologist whom she went to years before, she learns that the psychologist has died. For lack of anyone to talk to, she writes a letter to a very close old friend who now lives in Middletown, Ohio, and pours out her fears that she is losing herself and is no longer sure of what has really happened and what may have been imagined.
Devora, a retired judge and recent widow, lives on the third floor. Her husband had also been a judge, and their marriage was made even closer by their shared profession. But there had been differences over their son, a difficult and troubled child with whom her husband had demanded they make a complete break. Alone in her apartment, watching protests against housing prices on television, she decides to join the demonstrations and, invigorated by the passionate but chaotic young people, is drawn into the social protests. She feels compelled to tell her husband about the unrest in the country and, more important, the decisions she is making that have put her totally in charge of her life. Having found an old answering machine, she records her story in two-minute snatches.
The author, Nevo, creates three compulsive narrators, three unsparingly candid monologues, three stories that expose the psyches of people caught at critical points in their lives — each dramatizing one aspect of Freud’s theory. The stories are very loosely linked and progress up the three floors, each dealing with a situation that comes closer to resolution as the novel goes up a floor. The reader, the unacknowledged listener to these one-sided outpourings, comes to know Arnon, Hani, and Devora intimately but cannot provide the responses they so ardently want. Perceptive and compelling, Three Floors Up plays with the form of the novel itself and keeps the reader absorbed in its sets of triads.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.