Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 23, 2022

The Woman Upstairs (2013), by Claire Messud

All those of us who haunt the Op Shops know the feeling… that title that beckons from the shelf?  Why is it familiar? Is it already on our shelves?  Is it a book desired but not purchased because of fleeting attempts to rein in book-buying habits?  Did it win a prize?  Or (#OminousWarningBells) is it one of those over-hyped books that are best avoided?

Well, at $2.00 per book in my local Salvos store, it’s worth the risk.  The money goes to a good cause — and I can always recycle the book anyway…

As it turned out, I hadn’t wasted my money.  Claire Messud’s fifth novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t IMHO great literature and it doesn’t have anything particularly profound to say, but I enjoyed reading it.  And when I looked it up at Goodreads, I found that it had gathered a good deal of international attention.  It was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; the Arab American Book Award Nominee for Fiction; the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction; the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the International Dublin Literary Award, and (less convincingly) the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction.

Reminiscent of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (2003) in its portrayal of a needy teacher whose life seems derailed by inertia and thwarted hopes, The Woman Upstairs features Nora Eldridge, a good and worthy soul and a popular teacher at an elementary school in Cambridge Massachusetts.  Privately, she is an unrecognised artist, a maker of Lilliputian dioramas portraying the tragic worlds of subjects like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick.

…I was making a tiny replica of Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom, about the size of a boot box, each floorboard in place, the re-creation of her furnishings exact and to scale.  Once I’d made her room, and made her, as perfectly as I could, in a white linen nightie with ruffles, my aim was to set up circuitry so that my Emily Dickinson might be visited, sitting up by her bed, by floating illuminations — the angelic Muse, her beloved Death, and of course my gilded mascot, Joy herself. (p.77)

It was to be a series.  Virginia Woolf putting rocks in her pockets; Alice Neel in the sanatorium to which she was committed at 30 years of age; and Edie Sedgwick in Warhol’s Factory.  Nora toys with the series title A Room of One’s Own? She thinks the question mark is the key…

So, Nora has a career; a creative pursuit albeit one with morbid tendencies; a couple of great friends including the irrepressible Didi, and a (somewhat distant) family. But that is not enough.  She wants more.  In the age of liberated women, she wants to conform to her own expectations of love, family and children.  And why not? Why should she be content to be unmarried and lonely, and to ache with longing for a child of her own to love?

Fatally, desiring more, she latches onto an expat family, the Shahids, whose child Reza enrols in her class.

Nora (prone to over-thinking) directly addresses the reader about this, revealing her illusions about a friendship doomed to hurt her:

You’re thinking, ‘But this poor woman, this middle-aged spinster, from where could she have conjured the idea that she had a family; or rather, that she had any family besides her father languishing in his ointment-pink apartment, and her Aunt Baby encrusted in her Rockport condo among the memorabilia, and, like a remote galaxy, [her brother] Matt and Tweety and their kid out in Arizona? But families have always been strange and elastic entities.  Didi is much more my family than Matt could ever be. And I knew it, with each of the three Shahids, intuitively.  I needed them, sure, and we can all argue about the moment when the balance tipped and I needed them so much that I would be hurt.  But you can’t pretend they didn’t need me too, each in his or her way.  They wouldn’t necessarily have admitted it — except Reza — but you can’t tell me that they didn’t love me. The heart knows.  The body knows.  When I was with Sirena, or Reza, or Skandar, the air moved differently between us; time passed differently; words or gestures meant more than themselves.  If you’ve never had this experience — but who has not been visited by love, laughing? — then you can’t understand. And if you have, you don’t need me to say another word. (p.150)

Well, yes, they do need her, as expats often need someone to take the place of the supports they have at home.  Nora is useful as Sirena’s dogbody assistant in the creation of her art installation, as a babysitter for Reza, and (a-hem) as companionship for Skandar.  But Nora can’t see it.  She is ready and ripe for the inevitable betrayal.  It’s her own lack of self-worth that has made her vulnerable: at a mere 37 years-of-age, Nora has undervalued herself as a spinster, an under-achiever and a nobody, and what she needs more than anything else is hope.  The Shahids deliver this.

I wanted to give them all a good shake!  (No, not Reza.  He’s just a kid.  But the adults, yes.)

Author: Claire Messud
Title: The Woman Upstairs
Design by Sean Garrehy LBBG (Little, Brown Book Group)
Publisher: Virago (an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette), 2013
ISBN: 9781844087327, pbk., 304 pages
Source: personal copy, OpShopFind, $2.00

 


Responses

  1. I read this when it was nominated for the Giller Prize but I don’t really remember a thing about it. I’ve just reread my review and it seems I was lukewarm about the whole story and didn’t care for any of the characters: https://readingmattersblog.com/2013/12/30/the-woman-upstairs-by-claire-messud/

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    • Well, as I say, it’s not great literature… my definition of great literature being that it’s something you remember all your life, because it has something profound to say about the human condition. I don’t imagine I’ll remember this in a few years’ time either.
      But I do think Messud is drawing attention to the dissatisfactions of a generation of women who struggle to feel fulfilled by the lives they have. Quite why this is different to men who are also frustrated by wanting something different to what they have, I am not sure. Expectations, perhaps?
      Either way there have always been people disappointed by life and their own sometimes misguided efforts to improve it. I’m not convinced that it justifies anger, because it’s nobody’s fault, sadly, for some people, it’s just how it is…

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  2. I’ve read one Claire Messud which I’d say I felt like you … enjoyable, interesting reading though not necessarily memorable in the long term. This one did get a lot of buzz when it came out.

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    • Was that The Emperor’s Children? That’s the one that WP and GR say she’s famous for…

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      • Yes, that was it – her first or near it. I enjoyed it. Read it with one of those Internet Reading groups.

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        • I saw today that her latest is on Barack Obama’s 2022 Best Books list!
          #Ooops!
          Correction: it’s Sea of Tranquility (2022), the new Emily St John Mandel that’s on his list. I mixed them up because I’m currently reading The Glass Hotel (2020).

          Liked by 1 person

  3. One I recall the hype for, which may be the reason for not having picked it up. It does sound like an interesting book club read, likely to stimulate conversation around the fulfillments and frustrations of lives.

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    • Yes, I think you’re right. There’s a lot of commentary about not being able to relate to the character, which would probably lead to lively discussion about whether that’s essential in a book. (I think not.)

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      • Which is more stimulating in conversation than when everyone relates. I just finished Free Love by Tessa Hadley and she’s written a totally non-conforming character that started out terribly conventional, her unrelatability provokes opinion and invites judgement, and yet she finds contentedness.

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  4. This has been a book that has grabbed at me several times in the shop but have never acquired it. I’ve too many books to read as it is now so I will probably continue to go past it.

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    • That’s how I felt when I saw it in retail stores. It was only because it was so cheap in the Op Shop that I bought it.

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