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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: 'The Woman Upstairs'

By Claire Messud
Literary fiction
April 2013
ISBN: 978-0307596901

Collisions between creating and privacy, friendship and art, love and honesty are at the heart of the brutal, passionate and uplifting The Woman Upstairs, the latest novel by Claire Messud.

Uplifting is just about the last word that comes to mind when Nora Eldridge begins her story. She is more than irritated or even cheesed off. She is furious. Angry isn't volatile enough to describe her scorching, psyche-deep, all-consuming rage. It's part of being a woman, an unmarried woman who teaches young children and who once thought of becoming an artist, a woman who once held an important corporate position and who could have married a man who became a successful attorney. Nora knows this and she knows it's hardly acceptable. This is Nora -- she is honest about how she feels, even when she does things she knows are wrong, and she is about as honest a narrator as one usually sees. Just when it looks like you've caught her being unreliable or just trying to fool herself, she puts the record straight. As when she says:

I'd like to blame the world for what I've failed to do, but the failure -- the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit -- is all mine, in the end. ... I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you're taught to eat your greens before you have dessert.

In putting the record straight about why she is angry, Nora goes back to relate what happened a few years ago when she gave her heart away to three members of the same family. First is her new third grade student, Reza, who catches her eye at the supermarket before he comes to her class; his mother, Italian artist Sirena, who is living the kind of life Nora may have once wanted or thought she wanted; and his father, Skander, an academic who is a quietly charismatic man.

From the beginining, Nora knows she's crossing the line when she realizes how deeply she cares for Reza. When he suffers first one, then two, instances of bullying, Nora crosses the line in taking care of him. Sirena immediately stirs her sympathy and empathy. When Reza's mother suggests that they share the lease on a loft space to create their respective works of art, Nora again crosses the line and jumps at the chance. She babysits for Reza, she takes longer and longer walks with Skander when he walks her home, she starts helping Sirena with her installation. She's way too invested in these people.

Messud displays acute observations about education, art and how people care for each other in this novel. It begins with Nora explaining an aspect of her job, which in turn reveals truths about her:

When they tell me that I "get" kids, I'm worried that they're saying I don't seem quite adult. The professor husband of a friend of mine has likened children to the insane. I often think of it. He says that children live on the edge of madness, that their behavior, apparently unmotivated, shares the same dream logic as crazy people's. I see what he means, and because I've learned to be patient with children, to tease out the logic that's always somewhere there, and irrefutable once explained, I've come to understand that grown-ups, mad or sane, ought really to be accorded the same respect. In this sense, nobody is actually crazy, just not understood.

It's fairly obvious that Sirena, whether meaning to or not, is taking advantage of Nora. After all, Nora ia one of those ubiquitous Women Upstairs. They are Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. They are the Maiden Aunts, the Youngish Widows, they are On the Shelf. They are there to serve. That is their function, their role. They are not made to complain or complicate matters. No matter that they once had dreams of becoming an artist, no matter they still feel the weight of their own mothers not having a fulfilling life beyond housekeeping and child-raising duties, that they could have married but realized it would have been the end of their dreams.

This is how Nora is viewed. But she yearns, or how she still yearns.

Nora is someone who wants to be fully understood for who she really is, but she isn't sure that she can trust anyone else to understand her. So she hides. Until she gives her heart away. Even her art is compressed. She tries to make little dioramas of rooms of famous women artists -- Emily Dickenson, Virginia Woolf and Edie Sedgewick. One weekend, Nora completely obliterates the line in her relationship with both Sirena and Skander and believes she is reveling as her true self, as an artist. And it comes back to haunt her in what will be seen by some as a huge betrayal and by others as an artist simply being an artist, using what material is there.

The culmination of Nora's relationship with the family is not much of a surprise. There has been plenty of conversation about ethics and history -- Skander's academic specialty -- and creating art, to warn the reader. And how nothing looks the same to everyone. Much of what is conveyed is quite meta, including Sirena's art, which includes in her installations objects remade of trash:

... lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse: elaborately carved soap primroses, splayed lilies and tulips fashioned out of dyed dishrags and starch, silvery vines of painted and varnished clothesline and foil, precisely and impeccably made. I couldn't quite picture them when she talked about them, but the idea made sense to me: visions of paradise, the otherworldly, the beautiful, and then, when you're in them, up close, you realize that the flowers are mottled by filth and the vines are crumbling and that the gleaming beetles crawling on the waxy leaves are molded bottle tops or old leather buttons with limbs. ... She told me too that latterly she'd made videos of the installations, that the story of the videos was precisely this revelation that the beautiful world was fake, was made of garbage; but that first she had to film it in such a way that it looked wholly beautiful and that sometimes this was hard. And also, she said, narrative was hard: when you made a video, there had to be a story, and a story unfolded over time, in a different way, and didn't always unfold as you wanted it to.

The ultimate beauty of the novel is how it ends. It's not one of those novels that ends without resolution. And it is an ending that makes great sense considering what Nora has revealed of herself all along.

She may be a Woman Upstairs, but one of the ideas that has been consistently presented throughout is that no one should go gentle into that good night. No matter how many times one may argue with and cajole Nora during the novel, this is not an easily imagined resolution. It's a resolution that can make a reader all the happier for having made the journey of reading this novel.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission


  1. Wonderful review of an amazing book! It's definitely in my top 5 for this year.

    1. Thank you! The novel had such an audacious beginning that I feared she couldn't keep the momentum going. Well, she did that and more. I could fill a chapbook with quotes from this book.

  2. I have this one on my TBR -- I am looking forward to it even more after your review!

    1. Do let me know what you think when you get to read it. Still in my top five for the year.