The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Publication date: April 30th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction
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We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible. I thought it wasn’t true, or not true of me, but I’ve learned I am no different at all.
With that Nora comes crashing into our psyches as the protagonist in The Woman Upstairs. There is no coating of sugar on her life as she sees it, only the naked emotion under the façade she has so carefully crafted. She is in her early 40s, unmarried with no children. She pursues the noble profession of being a school teacher. She is good: a good daughter, a good friend, a good teacher. And she is furious. She unleashes a rage that has been silent for so long that it now overflows on the page. For some this will be recognized and exhilarating but for others it will be recognized and uncomfortable. It is with patience and eloquence that author Claire Messud creates for the reader the events that bring Nora to this point in her life.
Nora is not the most likable of narrators but her voice is so strong there is no choice but to listen. We begin several years in the past, when Reza shows up in her third-grade classroom, capturing her heart and imagination with his limited English and his shy but winning manner. When she meets his mother, Sirena, it is as if her youth, in all its yearning, has returned. Sirena, with her shawls, messy hair, and Italianate gestures, defines for Nora, a real artiste. Her offer of a shared studio awakens in Nora dreams that have long been silenced. The husband, Skandar, stops by to visit the studio, the circle is complete and so is Nora’s love. This is not a familial love, a love of the unit, but a burning love for each as an individual, for what each gives her, what feeds the “ravenous wolf” she now acknowledges is her spirit.
What did I bring to them? Who was I to them, neither glamorous nor obviously brilliant nor important in the world? And yet, all three of them looked to me for something, even if none of us could tell what it was. Each of them wanted something, and their wanting made me believe that I was capable.
We watch as these relationships grow and fill Nora’s empty life. Suddenly, she is making art, spending increasing amounts of time in the studio with Sirena, working on their projects—Nora’s small enclosed dioramas, intricate but complex with the restrained tension of tiny meticulously handcrafted objects and Sirena’s wide expansive installation of a fantasy world called Wonderland. She takes care of Reza, as a sitter when needed due to Skandar’s social commitments, and with Skandar, she provides companionship for a man without crossing the border that would damage her relationship with his wife. She believes these people feel for her what she feels for them; that she is as important and vital to their happiness as they are to hers.
Each one, in my impassioned interior conversations, granted me some aspect of my most dearly held, most fiercely hidden, heart’s desires: life, art, motherhood, love, and the great seductive promise that I wasn’t nothing, that I could be seen for my unvarnished self, this precious girl without a mask, unseen for decades, could—that she must, indeed—leave a trace upon the world.
Her emotions confuse her but she is so drunk with the joy of intimacy that she continues to give them more and more of herself, even as her rational mind cautions her.
It’s not right to say that they made me think more highly of myself; perhaps more accurately, that they allowed me to, in their wanting. My lifelong secret certainty of specialness, my precious, hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them, and feared them, too: feared the power they might wield over me, and simply on account of that fear, almost certainly would.
The Woman Upstairs is a curious and compelling book—a contemporary Jean Brodie on steroids. Nora’s passion and onslaught of emotions for these people will strike some as peculiar or frightening. It feels as if nothing good can come of it but where will the fabric tear and who will cross the line? What makes a life fulfilling, and if what you think is not real, what do you do with what is left? Messud brings these questions to the forefront with her intense prose simultaneously creating sympathy for Nora in her loneliness but unease at the need that suffuses her every thought. With a surgeon’s precision she lifts the top of the collective cranium of an entire subset of women who, in having been given so much, feel left with so little. The Woman Upstairs is fiction that will resonate. There is what, to many, will be an unseemly rage but out of it comes an empowering sense of triumph.
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that… Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones that are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.