The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

by

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge is an angry, angry woman with a chip on her shoulder that is more log than chip:

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.

Nora’s anger is so deeply ingrained that she manages to see any of life’s curves (the lingering death of her mother, her principal being somewhat remote) as yet another deliberate persecution that adds fuel to her rage. She is warped enough that she manages to abuse even the positive opportunities presented to her so that they become failures that prove the world really does have it in for her.

Alternately…

Nora Eldridge is a gentle, compassionate soul who throughout her life has consistently been dealt a series of bad hands:

That’s why I’m so angry really — not because of all the chores and all the making nice and all the duty of being a woman — or rather, of being me — because maybe these are the burdens of being human. Really I’m angry because I’ve tried so hard to get out of the hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world, or of my world, on the East Coast of the United States of America in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

This version of Nora consistently tries to adapt to circumstances, to find hope and achievement that will turn her dismal life around. And every time she takes that risk, the cruel world finds a way to betray her trust and effort and make things even worse. “I know women like her” will be the response of many who find this version of Nora in the book.

It is to author Claire Messud’s credit that she not only introduces those two possible portraits of Nora in the opening pages of The Woman Upstairs (those quotes come from the first two pages), she maintains them as equally-balanced options throughout the novel — it is left to the reader to decide which Nora fits their own world view/prejudice. Here is the metaphor that she uses to frame both alternatives — note here as well that it is left to the reader to make a choice between “deserving” and “unfortunate” victim:

At the fair each summer when I was a kid, we visited the Fun House, with its creepy grinning plaster face, two stories high. You walked in through its mouth, between its giant teeth, along its hot-pink tongue. Just from that face, you should’ve known. It was supposed to be a lark, but it was terrifying. The floors buckled or they lurched from side to side, and the walls were crooked, and the rooms were painted to confuse perspective. Lights flashed, horns blared, in the narrow, vibrating hallways lined with fattening mirrors and elongating mirrors and inside-out upside-down mirrors. Sometimes the ceiling fell or the floor rose, or both happened at once and I thought I’d be squashed like a bug. The Fun House was scarier by far than the Haunted House, not least because I was supposed to enjoy it. But the doors marked EXIT led only to further crazy rooms. There was one route through the Fun House, relentless to the very end.

I’ve finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House. All you want is the door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it. No: let me correct that. In recent years, there was a door, there were doors, and I took them and I believed in them, and I believed for a stretch that I’d managed to get into Reality — and God, the bliss and terror of that, the intensity of that: it felt so different — until I suddenly realized I’d been stuck in the Fun House all along. I’d been tricked. The door marked EXIT hadn’t been an exit at all.

Some kids emerge from the Fun House laughing and simply move on to the next amusement. Some emerge terrified, the day ruined and wanting only to get out of the midway for good. It could be argued the same is true of life itself.

The Nora who narrates the novel is forty-two, looking back on a school term about five years back when those Real Life doors appeared to swing open. Those 10 months of life that were so different from the rest of her existence began when eight-year-old Reza Shamid walked into her grade three classroom: “He glows in my mind’s eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.”

Reza is in Cambridge, MA for only a single year. His father, Skandar, is a Lebanese-born, renowned academic on a one-year fellowship. His mother, Sirena, is Italian, an established installation artist about to break through with global recognition for the project she will work on while in Cambridge. The Shamids live in Paris — they represent a cosmopolitanism that is the opposite of the restricted Massachusetts’ world where Nora has spent her entire life.

In high school, Nora aspired to be an artist (and showed talent) before opting (or being forced to opt?) for the much less risky (and less satisfying) world of teaching. She meets Sirena for the first time following a bullying incident involving Reza and suddenly Nora’s world begins to spin more quickly. In virtually no time, Nora and Sirena agree to co-rent a studio space: Nora has found a reason (and apparently a supporter) to return to her artistic ambitions.

It is worth a brief description of the projects that Sirena and Nora undertake because that too illustrates the kind of contrasting tensions that Messud establishes throughout the novel.

Sirena is at work on an installation that her Paris gallery has already booked, a life-size version of Alice in Wonderland built from modern materials (Astro-turf, slivers of mirrors, voluminous ballooning dresses for Alice). Sirena’s claim to fame is that she “extends” her installations by covertly filming people as they walk through and experience them — the resulting videos are screened both as complements to the installation and as free-standing exhibits in themselves. Some visitors, knowing this, come dressed up and ready to perform, eager to become players in part two of the project. Others have no idea that the filming is taking place.

By contrast, Nora’s project involves the detailed construction of four miniature dioramas (literally shoebox size): Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom, Virginia Woolf “putting rocks in her pockets and writing her final note”, Alice Neel’s white room in the asylum and Edie Sedgwick’s room in Warhol’s Factory. For the first time since her student life, she feels inspired. And for the first time, she feels that in Sirena she has a fellow traveler who will support her — although the nature of the two projects and their subjects certainly suggests widely diverging creative interests and inspirations.

We know from that opening Fun House metaphor that this will fall apart — and it does, not just with Sirena, but with her husband and Reza as well. The testimony to Messud’s skill is that it is left to the reader to determine (in his or her own mind) whether the angry version of Nora creates her own disaster or whether Nora is yet again a victim of manipulation and ill-will.

I’ll admit that a third of the way through the book, I was firmly in the camp of “Nora creates her own fate” and finding her to be a most unappealing character. I’ll also admit that it was about at this point another response started creeping into my mind: I was responding in a very male fashion and I could easily see how some of my female reading friends would have a much more sympathetic response to Nora again finding herself in the role of victim.

That self-criticism of my response did keep me going through the book but, in the final analysis, I would still say Nora is closer to version number one at the top of this review than number two. Having said that, I will not be surprised at all if and when conflicting views show up in comments. And I can predict with some confidence that over the next year a number of book clubs will be having exactly the same debate, argued with passion from both sides.

That ambiguity is the greatest strength of the novel — in my defence, I’d hope that even those who sympathize completely with Nora acknowledge she is responsible for at least some of her problems. Having said that, successfully creating that kind of ambiguity is a tribute to any novelist. Whatever I might think of Nora (and however I may have been frustrated, even angry, with her while reading the book), Messud deserves full credit for a work that will provoke such dramatically diverse responses.

15 Responses to “The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    This sounds interesting. I read a review of this somewhere else recently….

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It’s only been out for about a month. Messud is the wife of James Wood of New Yorker fame, so the release got a fair bit of attention. I haven’t paid much attention to professional reviews — two people who read it on Mookse’s Booker forum disliked Nora even more than I did. One of them did note, however, that the prose was very strong. As might be expected, Messud is a very disciplined stylist — and I would say she is every bit as careful when she is putting together her “plots”.

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  2. Slightly Bookist Says:

    I’m about to review this book myself and enjoyed your review. There was an LRB review of it that rather missed the point, and certainly failed to read Nora and the novel as astutely as you have done.

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  3. Isabella Says:

    I loved this book, and I loved Nora, and I wonder how much of that has to do with my being a 42-year-old woman (close enough, anyway). But yes, she is responsible for some of her problems (although, does she really have all that many? apart from general dissatisfaction with life?), and I’d say a good deal of her anger/frustration stems from her realizing that she does bear some of the responsibility. Good point about how Messud works at balancing the two possible portraits — I was so intent on rooting for my Nora, I’m not sure I noticed just how deft Messud is. (I wrote a bit about this book here: http://goo.gl/jxET1.)

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think it is quite easy to get “fixed” on one idea of Nora (she rather invites that, be it a positive or negative take) and then overlook some of the offsetting traits that are presented.

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  4. Guy Savage Says:

    This was on one of the blogs I read. Perhaps the blogger will chime in here. Have you read the author before? (I’m guessing not).

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  5. David Says:

    As I noted over on Mookse’s Booker forum, I finished this knowing it was a Very Good Book but having largely failed to be affected by it. I remember having a similar reaction to both ‘The Emperor’s Children’ and ‘The Hunters’. I think the problem for me is one you mentioned in your recent James Salter review: Messud strikes me as being a writer’s writer and I can see how other writer’s would revel in the technical skill that Messud shows and the quality of her prose. Yes, I can appreciate those things too and they matter to me, but – not wishing to sound shallow – I also want to feel something when I read; I want to be carried along by the story or be invested in a character, and although I could relate to Nora and her frustrations in many ways, I just didn’t care about her. I still liked the book and I think your review offers a great analysis, Kevin – actually it’s a book I find I’m enjoying more thinking about than I did reading it (maybe I’m forgetting some of the duller stretches!).

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I completely agree with the “writers’ writer” observation — I did think about the Salter comparison when I was reading the book. And it was not just the technical virtuosity — in some ways, Philip is to males what Nora is to females.

      I also find it a better book to think about than I did to read, as you mention. Part of that, I think, is that Messud “writerliness” comes not from her prose but rather her characterization and the overall structure of the situation that she portrays. While I found many aspects of Nora more than frustrating in the reading, looking back on the whole is more useful than was the experiencing of the parts.

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  6. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    As I mentioned earlier, I have selected this book for my next season of Literary Masters book groups. Now that I’ve read your excellent review, I’m even more convinced we will have many wonderful discussions. You should think about joining!🙂

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  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The Salter comparison in the comments makes me even more interested in this, but the review had already got my attention. It’s a great analysis Kevin, and one that makes the book sound rewarding and perhaps in a way challenging. I’ll check it out when it hits paperback, which before this I certainly hadn’t planned to.

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  8. Mary K Gilbert Says:

    This female reader and her sister ( who incidentally is a writer herself) both agree with you about the unappealing nature of Nora. Is it perhaps an age thing rather than anything else? We couldn’t really see why she was so sorry for herself. She is young, has a good job, is attractive, apparently, has feisty friends and a flat of her own. She’s an artist and can express herself so why all the self pity and whining? We both saw the denouement rolling up from half a book away. As to the `arty’ family she attaches herself to – how phoney are they? This was a very disappointing read especially after The Emperor’s Children. I think you’ve been rather diplomatic about what is in essence a poor book.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      How nice it is to be found “rather diplomatic” in my assessment of a book.🙂 Actually, I (almost) always do my best to try to be fair, even if I don’t much like the book.

      A year after reading the novel, I’d say what stayed with me most is the premise of the book, even if the execution was lacking. While I did not much like or sympathize with Nora, I appreciated the challenges that she was facing. And the notion of an artist struggling to find herself (and perhaps leaning too hard on someone whom she saw as a mentor) struck a responsive chord. Having said that, “phoney” is a pretty fair description of most of the characters in the book.

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