The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Claire Messud has really captured something in this intimate novel about the inner life of a middle-aged, unmarried schoolteacher with artistic aspirations. Narrator Nora Eldridge experiences a kind of awakening when she meets the family of one of her students. She falls in love with each member of the family, the boy, his mother, and his father, loving each in their own way. Nora tells the story of her joy in those loves, her struggles with their inappropriate excesses, the creativity they awaken in her, and the pain of their loss.
I totally disagree with the person who interviewed Messud and said that Nora is unlikeable, that she would not like to be her friend. I found Nora entirely charming, with her irony and self-deprecation, and, yes, her righteous anger. I thought that Nora would make a great friend, if a slightly obsessive one, but she’d try to hide her infatuation, for fear of seeming pathetic. The idea that Nora is unlikeable is closely connected with the idea that anger is not an appropriate emotion for women. Anger opens and closes the book, and so it is probably the dominant emotion that is associated with Nora, but in the middle there is no emotion so dominant as love. In fact, love betrayed is what gives rise to her overwhelming anger, and the anger is huge because the love was, too. I love the book’s final idea, that Nora’s anger is going to drive her to create amazing art, that it will rock her out of her complacency and she will finally live a full and engaged life. If I extend that message to larger society, one of the larger points of the book may be that as long as women are socially discouraged from expressing anger, they will also be hobbled creatively. They won’t have access to the emotional power that anger gives. The ambition gap may really be an anger gap.
This is a book that I wish I had written. I related so much to Nora, especially in her conviction that her life was unimportant and no one cares about her, at least not as much as she cares about them. My life could have easily ended up like Nora’s if I’d made a couple crucial choices differently. I, too, could have been 40, unmarried and childless, in a thankless career with artistic dreams that never came to anything. (The false idea that this is just about the worst fate imaginable for a woman is another topic that this book addresses well.) To explore the inner life of a woman who seems to have been forgotten by the world, and who has internalized that neglect into a kind of emotional asceticism: it seems like an important story, one that needed to be told. The novel’s language was superb, especially Nora’s vibrant, fascinating voice. It’s one of my favorites of the year so far.