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Monday 22 July 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

I took a little time out from the myths after following the strange ‘controversy’ (I call it that loosely; the media made a deal out of it but I don’t see it as warranted) caused by Messud’s angry (ish) outburst in response to the following question, raised in a Publisher’s Weekly Q&A:

“Q: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim

A: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”...”

You can read the full interview here: Claire Messud Publishers' Weekly

And the whole thing strikes me as funny, because Messud has a valid point and it feeds into the concept that women, on the whole, have to be likeable whereas men are permitted to be flawed, which makes them interesting, which is something that Sheryl Sandberg covers in her book ‘Lean In’ with the research to back it up, but somehow her ‘angry’ response prompted a temporary flood of high emotion about gendered questioning and whether her response, in itself, was proportionate. In any event it interested me enough to buy the book, so if nothing else it was great publicity.

Serendipity. On a number of levels that’s what this book has meant to me. Firstly because the very controversy-that-wasn’t-really fed itself into a thread of thinking I’ve been thinking, about women and their battle against perception, which is part of what my whole reading books by women mission has all been about. Also because of how it mirrors something of the theme of ‘Lean In’ by Sandberg which I’ll review more completely once I’ve ceased sharing it with every working women who stands still long enough. Also because Messud’s response was angry, and anger is an emotion which is viewed unfavourably in women which, serendipitously, is exactly what the novel is about.

Nora Eldridge is Messud’s protagonist. She is single, in her early forties, ordinary, a diligent school teacher, devoted daughter, considerate friend, artist wannabe and an angry woman. The anger is the first thing we learn about Nora; her anger is deep, visceral, barely contained. She is the first bubblings of a super-volcano. Outwardly she continues to be calm, helpful, kind, considerate, invisible Nora – the ‘Woman Upstairs’ – as she consistently refers to herself. Inwardly she is seething. She wants to stick two fingers up at the world and everything in it, the world in which she sees herself as having failed, missed her opportunity.

Nora’s story, the unravelling of it, begins with a new boy in class, Reza Shahid. Recalling having seen him a few days earlier, Nora is quickly entranced by the charming new child in class.  An unexpected incident of bullying prompts a meeting between Nora and Reza’s mother, Sirena, and this is when Nora’s identity begins to unravel. Sirena is an Italian artist married to a Lebanese academic, in the US for a year whilst her husband is working at the university. She is also warm, vibrant and charming. Unexpectedly Nora opens up to her and, almost too quickly, they agree to rent a studio together. Sirena wants to work on her installation, Wonderland, a work which she hopes to propel her into the big leagues whilst Nora sees this as an opportunity to re-invoke her own artistic yearnings, tiny dioramas representing the lives of famous, but tragic, female artists.

What follows is a three way love affair, or rather a situation in which Nora falls in love with the three Shahids and they, to all appearances, fall in love with her. Or do they? In this novel we hear only Nora’s story, perceive only Nora’s perceptions. It is clear that Nora fell in love with the family, all of the family, in various ways. It is clear that her involvement with them changed her. That Nora becomes a part of the Shahid’s life seems certain, her involvement in the construction of Sirena’s Wonderland, her nights babysitting Reza, her intimate walks and talks with Skandar are facts on which Nora can be certain. But did they mean anything? That is a question which Nora asks herself, and in the end finds an answer which isn’t to her liking.

It is a core theme of the novel: the question of what is real and what is fantasy. This is echoed in the differing works of the artists – Nora creates exact but tiny models of real-life rooms and lives, whereas Sirena creates an imaginative masterpiece themed on Alice in Wonderland, in itself a story which tangles the real and unreal. Where Sirena creates, larger than life, Nora replicates or assists in bringing to life Sirena’s vision. And she is happy, joy-filled, in this role, fulfilled in her secondary position until she realises that this is what she is. Until the Shahid’s move on, leaving her behind.

I found The Woman Upstairs a discomforting read on so many levels. In some respects I could see Nora in me, I’m sure many women do, putting the needs of others first and putting our own hopes and dream on hold. Fulfilling others, but also being bound by fear. Fear of trying and failing. Better to help others succeed. There are also many questions about what it real and what is only a playing out of Nora’s fantasy, how much of the ‘events’ happened in her head and not for real, but also a question about why they didn’t happen for real. Better to fantasise than risk rejection or failure. As a consequence Nora doesn’t allow herself to really live her life, she lives in a fantasy, in Wonderland, and like all fantasies they are only as alive as the person who creates them. Where Sirena is able to bring body and soul to her ‘Wonderland’, Nora’s relies upon the three people around her to create it. And when they are gone, it all falls apart.

I also couldn’t help feeling that Nora was used by the Shahids, that they played on her loneliness and willingness to become part of their lives knowing that eventually they would be leaving. Or perhaps not, perhaps they simply didn’t see her in the way she saw them. But that is the point of the Woman Upstairs: she’s invisible.

There’s a lot packed in to this short (ish) novel and a lot of intricate emotions. This is a complex novel, tightly written and intriguing and in the end, I think, highly successful. Nora may or may not be likeable, but in answer to Messud’s challenge, “is this character alive?”, I would say most definitely yes. Alive yes, but not living.

That I’ve written this much (and could go on) is a testament to how successful a novel Messud has created in The Woman Upstairs. It is a difficult but rewarding read and a reminder to us all that living bravely means living with risk but also reward.

The Woman Upstairs receives a livid (and impressed) 9 out of 10 Biis.  

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