The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
After I’d read just a few pages of The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s 2006 novel, I remember thinking “Surely this is what James Wood really means when he talks about hysterical fiction.” I liked it very much, but it was like double chocolate chocolate mousse cake: delightful in small doses, but overpowering taken all at once (and yet, like a rich dessert, there was no other way to consume it). All that wit, all those brilliant one-liners and distressingly accurate observations. The flamboyant descriptions of people and places and the terrible truths about being young/educated/human. The hysterically funny (ok, maybe mildly amusing) part is that I didn’t actually know at the time that James Wood and Claire Messud were a couple.
Messud’s new novel is more measured, more circumspect in its prose (if not in the sentiments expressed by it) than The Emperor’s Children, and, despite my admiration of the earlier novel, this is largely a good thing. There’s not much like that sensation of opening a new book, reading a page or two, and letting out that subconsciously held breath as you think “Here, this—I’ve found something right.” Perhaps, like climbing into a bed made with clean sheets, crisp from the line and smelling of wind and sun instead of fabric softener, good writing like this feels somehow like home, like authenticity. The Woman Upstairs is a great achievement.
The plot has been summarised everywhere. Nora is thirty-seven when the novel opens, an elementary school teacher instead of the artist she always thought she would—should—be. Her life has not gone how she planned, for a variety of reasons: circumstantial (she had to take care of her ill mother) and structural (she has not quite realised—and can we blame her?—that the promise of specialness is no guarantee that society will rally round and make damn sure she fulfils her early potential). When Reza, a beautiful young pupil whose father is spending a year on a visiting fellowship at Harvard, arrives in her classroom, Nora falls in love. When Reza is bullied, this gives her the chance to meet—and crowbar her way into the lives of—his parents. Nora frequently analyses the social boundaries she (or Reza’s parents, Sirena and Skandar) are breaking; of course, Sirena knows that she will be returning to Paris at the end of the year, so for her the rules are already different.
Nora becomes part of their lives, babysitting Reza, renting a studio and working with Sirena, and finding herself mentally and romantically stimulated by Skandar. So if Reza represents potential, Sirena—a real artist who is actually preparing for a show—represents Nora’s foreclosed creative ambition, and Skandar stands for the life of the mind that has slowly shut itself down as well as representing her ideal man. She is in love with the whole family, as she admits, but more than that she wants to actually be them, to have their exciting, artistic, international lives instead of her own small, disappointing one. She is in love with how their very presence, their mere existence seems to have opened up paths through her life that she thought were closed off forever, and she is exhilarated.
In some ways The Woman Upstairs covers a lot of the same ground as The Interestings, except perhaps with Nora displaying less realisation than Jules in that novel that she might not have really had what it takes in the first place. This seems to be obvious when we compare Nora’s art project to Sirena’s: Nora’s is a reconstruction of famous writers’ bedrooms in miniature. It’s small and derivative. Sirena’s, on the other hand, is big, aggressive, bold—much more acceptably confident and masculine.
The honeymoon doesn’t last, of course. Nora has been so caught up in her own thoughts, even though it looks to the reader as though she is utterly obsessed by the Shahids, that she has barely even registered that Sirena and her family will be leaving. Will Nora be able to sustain this image of herself once her life has returned to normal?
A lot of reviews have wondered whether Nora is a victim of circumstances, or whether she has created her own fate. The answer seems to divide along gender lines. But isn’t in only for fictional characters that we invent this kind of dichotomy to “explain” a person’s life? At no point did Nora strike me as a victim or someone to be pitied, nor do I believe she is exactly creating her own fate. Instead she is simply living her life without intention (despite believing the opposite) and struggling with the direction this takes her in. Surely there are many people living in this “would-be” limbo, the situation made suddenly urgent by mid-life crisis. Good intentions pave the road to hellish disappointment and all that. The Woman Upstairs shows human nature in its full messiness and inconsistency, people failing to live each day as they want to live their lives, sustaining themselves through the hard parts with the poor-me tales and dreaming of finally appearing to the world as the person they know themselves to be, even as this dream knocks up against reality and becomes increasingly unlikely. What could be more like life?
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