Ah, a return to fiction! After two intense non-fiction reads, I really needed to have the language of a constructed world wash over me, and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs is a novel I’d been intending to read for over a year now. But if I had expected any relief from simmering rage and emotionality, I should have read something else (but I am really glad that I did not). Here’s the opening paragraph: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” And from the second paragraph: “I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, straight-laced, good daughter, good career girl…and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old….It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.” This is all within the very first page of the novel!
Messud’s main character, Nora, is a schoolteacher, unmarried, approaching forty who has given up her desires for an artist’s life in favor of doing the expected thing: a “safe” career teaching third grade, caring for her dying mother and her bereft father, and relegating her artistic impulses to a weekend hobby. She builds dioramas of famous women’s rooms out of shoeboxes–a way of documenting the containment these women had to work against in their lives, as Nora has to do in her own life. Tellingly, one of the dioramas she works on is Emily Dickinson’s room, and perhaps the idea for Nora’s rage comes from both the concept of confinement that Dickinson embodies and the barely concealed sense of implicit power that suffuses her poems, most notably “My Life had stood –A Loaded Gun.” Nora’s name also refers to Ibsen’s play The Dollhouse in which the main character, also Nora is trapped in the confines of marital belittlement and domesticity.
The story, which mostly takes place in Cambridge, MA., begins when a boy, Reza Shahid, enters her classroom in September. He has just moved with his family from France since his father, Skandar is spending a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard. Reza’s mother, Sirena (what a name! she is a true Siren, beckoning to Nora, enchanting her), is an artist, and through Reza, finds out about Nora’s dioramas, and she proposes that they share a workshop together. Sirena is working on a multi-media installation that she must complete by the end of the year, and it is this arc of artistic completion that gives the novel its timeframe.
Nora becomes enthralled and actually obsessed with all three Shahids. To her, they represent the embodiment of everything that she lacks: freedom, intellect, specialness, and through Reza, motherhood. The conflict of the plot is set in motion by the disparity in what Nora needs from them and how each of the three Shahids regard her. And at the heart of the novel is the question of what is the relationship between art and life, and between what is internal and external–how we want and need the world to see us, and how disillusioning the disparity between how we think of ourselves and what we get back from the world. There is also the question of how, as a woman raised to care for others, does one claim a space for one’s self, not just as an independent person, but also as an artist with a valid message to convey. To be an artist demands ruthlessness, and it is only through the anger that Nora finally experiences in her own relationships with Sirena, Skandar, and Reza (with all the gender and identity-bending complexities that this suggests), that she ultimately can cast herself free from her desire for them and thus become a true artist.
Apparently there was a huge amount of derision both in the critical and popular press pointed towards Messud and her novel soon after it was published, mostly about Nora’s character and how “likable” she is or isn’t. And the idea of a so-called unreliable narrator in a first-person narrative was seen to be uncomfortably problematic by many readers, so much so that many reviewers based their entire analysis of the novel entirely on Nora’s characterization rather than any other aspect of literary fiction. Her novel was said to have no plot, was written in sentences that were too long, and had no business dealing with the interior life of such an unexceptional woman.
But this is exactly what Messud is doing here (and I completely object to the complaint about there being no plot, since there is an entire life contained here within the book’s pages)–she is writing from the perspective of someone we would consider invisible yet who has all the same wishes and desires that we so secretly harbor: who will love us, is our life meaningful, are we special, how can we make an artistic statement that embodies all that we are?
Here is Messud on the question of whether Nora would be a good friend to have: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?…If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.” This is what Messud achieves in The Woman Upstairs–Nora’s life, which in so many ways is our life, too. That Messud has written a novel from the point of view of an enraged woman and has received such negative commentary just points to the extent to which so many read not to find life, but to escape from it–and also the discomfort that a woman expressing such rage continues to elicit in our still- phallocentric society.
It’s an excellent read: beautiful writing (and I love all the long and complex sentences, so much like the interior river of thoughts that courses through the mind), attentive plot and setting, and so well-paced. It’s a long book, and one that will draw you into Nora’s obsession, so be prepared. But do read The Woman Upstairs, especially if you are interested in the way Dickinsonian anger hidden within can emerge and erupt with power and, ultimately, artistic triumph.