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!’