Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs came out last year and there’s been quite a bit of discussion about it. I really like Messud’s writing (I’ve read her two novellas, The Hunters and A Simple Tale, as well as her big novel, The Emperor’s Children), mostly because she is a fiercely intelligent and intellectual writer, but also because of the way she works carefully at thorny emotional questions in her books. She can do social satire as well as intimate personal/domestic – so I was quite curious to read The Woman Upstairs and now that I’ve finished it, it’s exactly the kind of book I’d really like to discuss.
Briefly, the book is about a fortyish woman named Nora. And the book is, at least on the surface, about her anger at what life has dealt her, but also at the overall outcome of her choices and a long-chain of events that has led her to a certain moment—in this are family situations (the death of her mother being the most important, but also her childhood and her self-conception as having developed from her particular family with its specific emotional currents) and professional situations (her work as a 3rd grade teacher, her years-earlier decision to give up her dream of becoming a professional artist). Nora narrates the book, and she focuses her narrative on a single relationship, an odd kind of intense love triangle between herself and three others: Sirena, Skandar and Reza Shahid. The Shahids are a family (Reza is their young son and Nora is his teacher), and Nora and Sirena become friends and artistic collaborators (of a kind).
In the way that I have come to admire, Messud takes up a number of difficult questions in the story—namely, the particular solitude of a single childless woman in contemporary American society, the compromises a person makes in terms of fulfilling artistic dreams, the strange pull of female friendships, and also essential notions of desire and attraction and love. There is really a lot going on in the book, and she doesn’t work at these questions perfunctorily but instead she spends a lot of time on them, revisiting them in different situations and with different characters. It makes for the kind of book you can read forward and backward, slowly. Messud invites a kind of conscious reflection on Nora’s explanations and judgments, on her opinions and decisions, and so I often found myself asking – Is that true? Does it really feel like that? Do people feel that way? Do I feel that way?
I like a book that solicits this kind of engagement from me. And I love the scale of Messud’s social commentary. She can do satire (The Emperor’s Children) but in The Woman Upstairs she is decidedly never making fun of Nora Eldridge, even if the book can be funny at times. Instead, she is taking Nora very seriously—even when Nora might be difficult, or pathetic—and I found the seriousness of Messud’s project quite touching. Really, the book is a dissection of an individual’s unhappiness. Of a woman’s unhappiness. I think the distinction is important, and I think Messud makes it overtly.
One thing that struck me, however, was that the book’s emphasis on self-reflection and its choice to have Nora speak directly to the reader means that it also involves a tension between direct scene and thought-based exposition. Or, put another way, the book relies more heavily on Nora’s thinking than it does on Nora’s behavior. What she does is obviously there, but what she thinks is always and consistently forefronted. She is, quite literally, almost always “telling.” I found this a curious choice simply because the book is so much about Nora’s anger and the kind of person it has made her. Now, Nora is dealing with a simmering anger, a kind of just-barely controlled resentment—and so much of the book’s tension is wrapped up in waiting to see when she might lose control. I was surprised, in fact, at how little she does. I don’t mean big overwhelming eruptions, because I think that Messud is making a point that unless Nora intends to self-destruct (the option at one end of the anger spectrum – and something she will not ever do) she will internalize and hold it together no matter what. But Nora doesn’t ever really slip up. Not even little things. I’ll admit that because of this, it was sometimes easy to lose sight of her anger.
Finally, something else that struck me as interesting was the way the book is structured. It opens at a present-tense point, Nora in the here and now, and in this here and now she is furiously angry. At her life in general, but also because of something very specific. She then moves backward four years to begin the story of that very specific thing. And then the entire story rolls out – nearly 300 pages of it, all of it in that four years earlier time period, briefly interrupted by even earlier flashbacks. It isn’t until only a few pages from the end that we catch up to that first present-day period and where, essentially, we can now deal directly with Nora’s anger and its consequences. But it’s strange because Messud doesn’t do very much with this—she addresses it, of course, and in an intriguing (even a courageous way, I would say) way, but it is extremely brief. It surprised me. And I say courageous because Messud uses this story of Nora’s anger and what it might do/become as a launching off point into a future we cannot (or may not be able to) easily envision – if Nora can transform herself, in some way transcend the anger that has characterized her, it is only through the reader’s determination to agree with this possibility, really it is only through a trick of the reader’s imagination. That’s a fascinating idea – and one I’m still thinking about.