Review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

9780307596901_custom-dd5af455b48c150d2a8e1bfe8cf3d0a047ee9550-s6-c30>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: October 2013

“It’s like waking up, you know? At school, each year, I take out this coffee-table book about the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, and it’s full of the most incredible photographs—of Ayers Rock, the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Petra, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids—”

“I get it.”

“And the point is that whenever I lose faith in my life, I look at those pictures and I think, ‘You haven’t been here’ and ‘You haven’t seen that,’ and I’m suddenly filled with wonder, like the sky opening, you know, to think that all this exists, and hope, because I might someday experience some of it—the smells, the sounds, what the light is like.”

“So, okay?”

“So this fall, them, it’s been a bit like that: the sky opening; hope. A feeling of possibility. Yes, hope. Like maybe it isn’t all over yet.”

“Why would it all be over?”

“Because I’m thirty-seven and single and I teach elementary school and wear clogs every day.”

***

Nora Marie Eldridge: forty-two and furious that she hasn’t yet set the world ablaze. Nora is an artist trapped in the body of a former third-grade teacher at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the beginning of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Nora is reflecting upon her life—what she’s accomplished, and more importantly, what she knows in her heart she still needs to do—and about the family that turned her life upside down a few years previously.

For the most part, Nora’s life has been one of tacit acceptance. Following the prologue set a few years in the future we’re introduced to the Nora we come to know through nine tenths of Messud’s novel—the single teacher approaching middle-age, who suppressed her artistic leanings at her mother’s urging, citing the importance, above all else, of being self-sufficient, and of not being under the thumb of a husband’s financial allowance. Nora’s mother Bella, we soon learn, led a life filled with regret. At sixty-one she was diagnosed with ALS and died having lived more for her family than for herself—a “mistake” Nora would not allow herself to make.

At the start of a new school year, Nora meets Reza Shahid, a new student from overseas who has enrolled in her class—very clearly a caring, compassionate child to whom she takes an immediate liking. Soon Nora meets Reza’s mom, Sirena, an artist with contacts in New York and Paris. It isn’t long before Nora and Sirena recognize in one another similar artistic passions, and together they decide to rent a studio space they can share.

Right away, Nora begins to fall for Sirena—not necessary in love with, but in awe of her; she is enthralled by everything about Sirena, from her worldliness and experience to how she carries herself and the not-so-mild way Nora exoticizes her appearance. This fascination, and the new studio space they share, helps to reinvigorate Nora’s artistic desires; she continues her work crafting small but very detailed dioramas (tiny, elaborate tragedies) while Sirena sets to work on creating larger scale installations designed for public intervention.

Things progress smoothly in this regard until Reza is attacked at school—a rock imbedded in a snowball strikes him near the eye, requiring stitches. The incident causes Sirena’s doubts about living in America to rise to the surface. The family disappears back to Paris over the Christmas holidays, leaving Nora partially despondent until their return. When Sirena again joins Nora in the studio, things are never quite the same, and sudden success and interest in Sirena’s work only hastens the distance slowly growing between them like an ever-widening expanse.

The Woman Upstairs is a frustrating, at times disappointing read. Messud’s novel has a crisis of tone throughout. While bookended with an enticing, anthemic Fight Club-esque “middle children of history” invective—the author expressing her rage at the world passing her by—the majority of the book, told from the first person perspective, feels divided over what it wants to be and what it needs to say. While the narration is often long-winded and erudite, Nora’s speech is sharp, abrasive, and overly defensive, leaving the book with three distinct voices (including the opening and closing segments) that just don’t mesh together. Unfortunately, this leaves Nora a disparate collection of ideas without much in the way of cohesion, which in turn kept me from feeling as if I understood her, or why I should want to.

Similarly, there is unevenness in Nora’s self-styled independence and the speed and voracity in which she gloms on to the Shahid family and their amazing, mysterious ways. She says at one point, “My lifelong secret certainty of specialness, my precious, hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them, and feared them, too: feared the power they might wield over me, and simply on account of that fear, almost certainly would.” While it’s certainly believable that an interesting or inspiring person entering one’s life at the right time might upend a great many things, the speed at which this happens to Nora—the quickness at which the independence seemingly ingrained in her by her mother is given up to three not terribly three-dimensional characters—is surprising and saps our protagonist of much of her strength. More surprising, again given her tough outer shell (which, if intended to be a mask so easily cracked, did not effectively come across as such) is how she finds ways to justify her dependence on the Shahids and Sirena specifically, citing their need of her.

Messud’s novel is predicated on the idea of “the Woman Upstairs”. Throughout the novel, this concept, capitalized throughout as if a thesis statement, is forced too often on the reader, as if the author feared we’d forget the title of the novel or its meaning, laid out very clearly in the opening chapter:

I’m not an Underground Woman, harboring resentment for my miseries against the whole world…. No Ralph Ellison basement full of lightbulbs for us; no Dostoyevskian metaphorical subterra. We’re always upstairs. We’re not the mad-women in the attic—they get lots of play, one way or another. We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.

Unfortunately, the repetition of this thesis statement actually causes it to lose its impact over time; the novel becomes less about how Nora embodies the idea of the Woman Upstairs, and more about how she justifies her own existence by telling herself, over and over again, that this is the label she belongs under—that this is her club, and like all others sharing her lot in life, she’s pissed off that this is all she gets. It almost feels after a time as if she’s a hypochondriac who’s just finished reading up on a horrifying illness, then decides because she shares the same symptoms that she must be suffering the same fate—and she’s going to make damn sure everyone knows about it.

The most glaring tragedy of The Woman Upstairs is in what it sets up and doesn’t deliver upon, and not in what it actually spends so much time trying to say. When Sirena finds success, which invariably removes her from Nora’s very small bubble, Nora is hurt and feels abandoned—entirely because she’s crafted a fantasy of purpose under Sirena’s umbrella, a fantasy that’s based on some imagined love Sirena might have for her, that she’d be able to reconcile if only she actually voiced how she felt instead of keeping everything bottled up, tying her insides into knots of uncertainty (because she’d rather be hurt than risk popping that fantastic bubble and seeing how out of line many of her thoughts about Sirena and her family actually were). In this sense, Nora, fiercely independent Nora, would rather play the part of the victim than admit she might have been mistaken—which is symptomatic of having lived a life primarily consisting of regret, of living in service to her parents’ wishes for her career instead of doing what it was she truly wanted. As a result, Nora is less a character I felt any sort of attachment to and more of a cipher whose worth nearly disappears when Sirena is swallowed up by the larger art community.

So much of The Woman Upstairs is telling us about Nora’s frustration and anger at being the titular Woman Upstairs—but we’re not shown it, not really. Throughout, her actions are reactionary and not incendiary, as she’d want them to be. In the end, her anger at Sirena and the “twist” of the novel’s final pages is justified (as I imagine anyone would be furious by what transpires—by the violation of self and of privacy), but it comes too little too late to make us cheer for Nora’s next step. Without giving too much away, the ending not only betrays any kindness that the Shahids had shown to Nora throughout the novel (especially Sirena’s apparent friendship), but it is also predicated on capturing and stealing a moment so out-of-character for Nora that, when it first happened in the middle of the book, it almost broke me from the narrative.

The characters in The Woman Upstairs—the protagonist and everyone orbiting her—unfortunately never came together for me, nor did the thesis of the Woman Upstairs, which in this case is based upon an individual who did not seem to know who she was, even by the novel’s end. The entire book feels less like a complete, fleshed-out narrative and more of a prologue building to the more interesting story of what Nora does next with her life and how she sets the art world—and her past—on fire.

 

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