“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know,” is the opening line of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, and immediately it’s obvious this is going to be an emotionally charged journey. Why is the narrator so angry? It takes the whole book to find out, and it’s worth the read. Her own thwarted ambition is just the tip of the iceberg. Since the narrator begins in the thick of an emotional reaction, we know from the beginning her telling might not be perfectly reliable. It is, however, intriguing. And honestly, how many times have we secretly found it entertaining to listen to an angry woman rant?
An interview that Messud gave about her new book raised a buzz-worthy debate about the importance of liking a main character. She deftly pointed out that the expectations were different for female characters as opposed to male characters, who aren’t required to be as likeable. You can read more about that intriguing debate here, but I’ll save that topic for another post.
I found the premise of The Woman Upstairs both surprisingly intimate as a follow-up to Messud’s tremendous and sweeping 2006 novel, The Emperor’s Children, and reminiscent of the 2006 film (not the book it was based on necessarily, but the movie) Notes on a Scandal. I wondered if Notes on a Scandal inspired Messud at a time when she must have been pondering her next project. (If you haven’t seen it, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett give compelling performances. They were both nominated for Oscars.) The story of a spinster who becomes obsessed with a wife/mother is both creepy and sad, especially since to the observer it’s obvious that the spinster is never going to get what she wants out of the situation. We’re left to judge: which is the greater crime? Obsession, or betrayal?
In The Woman Upstairs, Nora Eldridge is a schoolteacher approaching forty. While in her twenties, she was on track for a cosmopolitan career and traditional marriage but left it all behind presumably to become an artist. Instead, she ended up caring for her ailing mother and teaching school in Cambridge. When the novel begins, Nora is still grieving the death of her mother and leading a nondescript life as the unremarkable “woman upstairs.” Her life is lonely and claustrophobic until the newly-arrived-from-Paris Reza Shahid joins her third grade class. He’s the child she always wished she had, and after some other kids bully Reza, Nora has the opportunity to meet Reza’s glamorous Italian mother, Sirena. Before long, Sirena asks Nora to share a rented studio space so they can both work on their art. Nora’s work involves building miniature dioramas of famous artists’ rooms, but Sirena is already an accomplished professional artist and her audio-visual displays are as big and dramatic as Nora’s are small and controlled. Nora also meets Sirena’s husband, Skandar, and before long Nora has fallen in love with all of them. The “love” grows into an unhealthy fantasy life and Nora becomes increasingly obsessed with the entire family, and Sirena in particular.
Sirena decides to create an artistic representation of Alice’s Wonderland and enlists Nora’s help. Sirena films people’s reaction to her art, and Nora doesn’t realize that the camera is on all the time. Alone one night in their art studio, Nora forgets that Sirena can capture the full scope of her fantasy life on film. The repercussions of that evidence, and the separate and complex relationships that develop between Nora and Sirena, Nora and Skandar, and Nora and Reza all lead to a heartbreaking series of events.
What’s so masterfully done here is the complexity of the main characters. We can love them and hate them simultaneously, because Messud paints such a clear picture of how their strengths are also their greatest faults. Was Nora a lonely and naive victim or a pathetic stalker? Was Sirena as talented and magnanimous as Nora imagined or the most selfish person on the planet? And did Skandar act as he did out of passion or cruelty?
In contrast to the intimate nature of The Woman Upstairs, Messud’s prior novel, The Emperor’s Children, had a larger cast of characters and was more of a statement about the time period. That was the story of three privileged, entangled Brown graduates in the months leading up to 9/11. At first it seemed to me that the only thing the two novels had in common was the high quality of their craftsmanship. On a quick reread and further reflection, I realized that the two books share something else: a focus on the gap in relationships between what’s real and what’s perceived. All of Messud’s characters believe they’re living one life when in reality they’re living a far less flattering existence. No matter which story she’s telling, Messud has an uncanny ability to satirize and humanize her characters in a distinctive and memorable way.
I loved The Emperor’s Children just as much now upon a reread as I did when I read it seven years ago, so if you’re looking for a big meaty story to chomp down on, I highly recommend it. If, however, you want something more intimate and burning, try The Woman Upstairs. Either way, get to know Messud’s work. Her talent is remarkable, and her fiction utterly unique.