The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over fucking forty years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone – every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it is pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

I think that’s possibly my favourite ever opening to a novel. Nora Marie Eldridge, 42, Elementary School teacher, goes on to say ‘Don’t all women feel the same?’ To which I reply, ‘Fuck, yes!’ If you haven’t already worked it out, I LOVED this book. More on that later.

Nora is pissed off because by the time her third grade students get to her:

…they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and cute outfits and they care how their hair looks!…How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in a place where being female means playing dumb and good looking? Even worse on your tombstone than ‘dutiful daughter’ is ‘looked good’; everyone used to know that. But we’re lost in a world of appearances now.

Nora compares life in modern day America to the Fun House at the fair – doors that seem to be exits but never lead outside into real life. This is compounded by her being at that age when women become ‘invisible’. She is ‘the woman upstairs’, the one who lives alone, quietly, at the end of the third floor, who lives a life ‘of quiet desperation…We’re completely invisible’. Her wish was that she would be an artist with several children by forty, instead she has a teaching job and a second bedroom that she uses as a studio. Nora is angry at her failure:

The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of family and society, and still create! Absurd. How strong did I think I was?

No, obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say ‘Fuck off’ to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. Men have generations of practice at this.

But, for a short time, things change for Nora.

It all started with the boy. With Reza…He walked into my classroom late, on the first day of school, grave and uncertain, his gray eyes wide, their millipedic lashes aflutter in spite of his visible effort to control them, not to blink, and above all not to cry.

Within a week, all the staff have ‘fallen in love with him, a bit’, this ‘exceptional’ child.

Reza’s mother is Sirena Shahid, an artist. She’s Italian. Her husband and Reza’s father is Skandar Shahid, a visiting lecturer at Harvard. He’s from Beirut. Nora meets Sirena when Reza is attacked at school and called ‘a terrorist’. The following evening Sirena telephones Nora at home to discuss the boys who’ve attacked her son and Reza himself. She suggests they meet for coffee and they organise it for two days later. Thus begins a relationship between Nora and the Shahids which allows Nora to feel as though she’s seen.

The inclusion of the Shahids also allows Messud to discuss race in America – or at least one facet of it. Skandar in particular, in one excellent scene, discusses the way you’re seen, the way assumptions are made about you, if you come from a particular country and how that differs – is whitewashed – if you study at university in America.

When The Woman Upstairs was published a number of reviews referred to Nora as ‘unlikeable’. Claire Messud gave a fantastic response in an interview with Publishers Weekly when the interviewer said she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora. Well, you know what? I would want to be friends with Nora because if she’s unlikeable, so am I and so are most of the women I consider to be my friends.

Why is Nora considered in these terms by some people? For me, the answer is in her loneliness and her desire to be seen. Everyone wants to be seen by someone, to not feel alone but we’re not allowed to admit that. I see myself in Nora – I was the woman upstairs for ten years and I was angry – I still am often, especially when the discussion concerns inequality. (I was also a schoolteacher. There was a point when I was reading the book when I wondered whether Messud had been stalking me a few years ago.) There is an incident in the novel that could be used to support someone’s dislike of Nora, however, if the behaviour she exhibits was performed by a man it would barely be commented on. Nora is deemed unlikeable because she is a woman but her loneliness and her desire for attention is not a female trait, it is a human one.

The Woman Upstairs is a superb novel and Nora is a fantastic character. And if the novel has one of the best openings ever, it also has one of the best endings; as with so many moments in the book, I found myself exclaiming ‘Fuck, yes!’

0 thoughts on “The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

  1. Hell, yes! I loved the strong opening, the anger, the voice – and there is a Nora in all of us – or there should be! I loved this book too, and I think the whole argument about the likeability of characters in fiction is silly: who would want to befriend Humbert Humbert or Daisy Buchanan or Mrs. Bennet? And Nora is so much more than bitter. I think the reason why American readers in particular had a hard time connecting with Nora is because she refuses to conform to the ‘positive’ image of self-help, smile in the face of adversity, suppress your anger and think happy thoughts, you are what you believe rhetoric (although ultimately her anger becomes productive).

    • That’s interesting. I hadn’t considered Nora from an American point-of-view but I agree with your interpretation. I don’t have any time for the likeability argument either and although I wouldn’t necessarily befriend them, there’s a few I wouldn’t mind hanging out with once or twice!

  2. Excellent review, Naomi. When I first read the interview with Messud I was stunned at the idiocy of the interviewer’s remarks, remarks that I’m sure would not have been made about a male character and all the worse for having been made by a woman. Nora’s character is a triumph – raw, furious and absolutely human.

  3. I’ve heard a lot about this book, mostly the ‘unlikeable characters’ chestnut, but your review leaves me intrigued by Nora’s relationship with the Shadids. I can imagine this being an interesting choice for book groups – plenty of meat for readers to get their teeth into.

    • Oh yes, I think it’d be a great one for book groups, especially for those with male and female participants. I can think of a few women of my acquaintance who read who wouldn’t like Nora though. That’s something I find interesting.

  4. What a fascinating book, quite thought-provoking. I personally think that people will always hate us whatever we do, so likeability has no certain standards. but I do agree with the point in which we are living in a world of appearances. it’s a painful fact 🙁

    • That’s an interesting take – do you not think some people are above that? For example, people who are considered ‘national treasures’ could probably get away with almost anything and still be adored.

      I agree with the world of appearances – which is a fascinating thing when you’ve chosen to study sideshow characters…!

  5. yes, I do think so. there are indeed some people like that. but still, they’re not without haters. I mean, people’s opinions cannot be just one, can they?

  6. I loved this one too. And I loved Nora, I totally understood her and would rather be friends with Nora than Sirena! One of my favourite reads of the year, great review. Look forward to hearing from you about her other work.

  7. I’ve had this book for a while, but after reading a couple of bad reviews it kinda slid down the TBR…but I think I’ll actually LOVE this. Loved your comment about her stalking you, made me laugh so much! Is this going to the top of the TBR pile? Fuck, yes!

  8. I liked this but my book group hated it so much bar me and another woman. Like, they bring up at almost every meeting – “do you remember that book we all hated so much?”. It kinda made me think of the division between “literary” readers who like to go a bit out there with ideas around unlikeable characters, about the concepts and arguments behind the writing; and other intelligent, discerning people who want something different out of a book, to be blown away by sensation, by being impressed with the words, by the events, by a perception of reality.

    • Oh, blimey. Well I guess the book’s designed to provoke a strong reaction. I haven’t really considered that division, I think I like a bit of both but perhaps that’s unusual.

  9. Thank you for this, and the link to the interview. I really like her intelligence and crackle. I think this one might be making its way to the TBR I rather sat up and cheered at this statement of hers in that interview: Because rage at life and rage for life are very closely linked. To be angry, you have to give a shit.

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  11. Just yesterday I was writing about Paula Hawkins’ novel when I wondered whether you have read The Woman Upstairs or I hadn’t seen the review. Here’s my answer! I think it is a very interesting book, which I haven’t read yet, but what I love the most is that Messud opened the door to unlikable female characters in modern fiction.

    • You know what? I’m not convinced she has. I think they’ve become acceptable in psychological thrillers thanks to Gone Girl but I don’t see any great acceptance in literary fiction.

      • Well, since I basically read crime ficiton, I can say that they are becoming more well-known and accepted, but you’re right, not in ‘general’ fiction, which is a shame. I hope things will change though.

      • Remember our narrator in Notes on a Scandal? (Can’t remember her name, but Judi Dench played her in the film, which I must see…) Anyway she was rather horrid. But that was so much of an anomaly that I remember reading articles about it! I’m bad for sympathizing with my narrator…I think sometimes I invest too much in their veracity, if you know what I mean. Also, I know in Gone Girl reviews have spoken of two truly awful people…but to me Nick was an angel compared to Amy. He was just a bit of a knob, whereas she was seriously disturbed. At least that’s how I recall it. Another film I must see!

        • Barbara, yes. I didn’t think she was that bad though, I thought she was human; a forerunner to Nora. And I agree about Nick, he wasn’t as smart as his wife was his biggest problem, I thought. If he’d been unlikeable, he’d have been boorish, I think, instead he was just a bit thick. Thanks, crimeworm. Good comment.

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