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May 9, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

the-woman-upstairsClaire Messud’s latest novel The Women Upstairs is a book that rubs shoulders with so many others, in fact a veritable library which runs the gamut from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to Zoe Heller’s 2003 novel Notes on a Scandal. Although the latter novel is not referenced in Messud’s book, but rather by critics who haven’t read The Woman Upstairs yet and see implicit connections between these two novels about spinster schoolteachers with transgressing extracurricular connections, and who seemingly destroy their lonely lives with a subsuming obsession with another woman and her family. In Messud’s book, what is the scandal though? To which I answer that there isn’t one. Messud’s is a dark psychological fiction in which plot is not the point and not much really happens, but I dare you not to be captivated by her narrator’s voice, by this novel which begins in a fury: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”

 The voice belongs to Nora Eldridge, age 37, not incidentally the very same age as Marianne Faithfull’s Lucy Jordan when she realized she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car. And we are not to know until the novel’s conclusion just why she is so angry, assuming it’s mainly due to her dissatisfaction with her place in the world, her own invisibility the result of a life spent pleasing others. She doesn’t get to be “an Underground Woman” or even one of the mad-women in the attic (“they get lots of play, one way or another”), but instead she is “the woman upstairs”, “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.”

“Nobody would know me from my own description of myself,” Nora tells us, though it soon becomes clear that her own description of herself is the product of her imaginings, that she has little insight as to how she’s seen by the world, or perhaps she’s making a case for herself in this novel, that she’s taking full advantage of this opportunity to finally make a sound. When a new student arrives in her class, she’s immediately besotted with him, and swept up in the exotic world of his parents, his mother Sirena an Italian artist and his father a Lebanese professor. She admits that she finds their foreignness intriguing, though the reader wonders if its real appeal is that the couple is unable to place her as the outcast she is, and if in their role as outsiders, she’d projecting her own self upon them. And indeed it’s true that Nora does a lot of self-projecting. Metaphors of fun-houses and trick mirrors run throughout the novel, things not being what they seem (Sirena is busy at work creating an installation of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland), but nothing is more tricky than Nora’s own narration, her fantastically unreliable point of view.

Messud’s novel is also structured as a fun-house, trap-doors and booby-traps springing up if the reader makes the mistake of taking Nora at her word. Which is a difficult mistake to avoid–Nora’s voice is so forceful, persuasive, she perpetually speaks in generalizations and second-person address designed to make us feel comfortable, familiar. “Don’t all women feel the same?” she asks, and you’d be hard-pressed not to respond with a nod, but then, no! There is no such thing as “all women” anyway, and besides, Nora Eldridge is clearly unhinged. On top of being an unreliable trickster of a narrator, she is also blatantly wrong, about so many things, but most notably in her insistence on regarding the world within the limits of gendered binary terms. In this way, the novel recalls Carol Shields’ Unless, another book in which an enraged female narrator stamps her ladylike foot at the systematic repression of womankind, institutionalized sexism which completely exists, but her singular focus upon this obscures a far more complicated reality. Which is not to say that Nora Eldrige’s or Reta Winter’s rage is misplaced, that either should cease their foot-stamping, but just that there is ever and will be ever more to the story.

Nora is threatened by her growing relationship with Sirena, her student’s mother whose thriving career as an artist challenges Nora’s own ideas about the limits placed on women by society. Nora is disappointed by the failure of her own artistic dreams, and Sirena‘s success suggests that this failure could fall more on the individual than on the society around her. But at the same time, Nora is also inspired and empowered by her connection to Sirena, by Sirena‘s attention to her. In their relationship, Nora finds herself as close as she’s ever been to the type of person she’s longed to be and the type of life she’s dreamed of living. Their connection is complicated, power ever-shifting between them, and it’s never entirely clear just who is being played.

The Woman Upstairs also reminded me of Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, another novel whose foundation is a most remarkable voice, another novel that was sparked by rage and thirst for revenge. In terms of subject matter although not as complex as a fiction, it also had me thinking of The Interestings, which I read recently, another book about friendship, about what happens when different types of people dare to mingle. And even The Great Gatsby–these books in which ordinary people glimpse another, better world and have the nerve to imagine themselves a part of that scene.

But what happens when the scene shatters, when it reveals itself to be a mirror and the character suddenly realizes that she was outside all along?  Claire Messud’s Nora’s suggestion is to pick up the pieces and sharpen the shards, though whether she actually will or if this will be just another example of her fruitless longing is just a whole other layer of complexity underlying this formidable book.

One thought on “The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud”

  1. m says:

    Thank you for this. Comparing the voice to The Antagonist has sold the book to me. It’s definitely going on the to-read-soon list.

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