The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud’s fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, puts the reader into the hands of Nora Eldridge, who happens to be in one hell of a bad mood: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” she warns us. Forty-two years old and single, she represents a stock figure in society, condescended to and pitied — when noticed: “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 a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we’re furious.”  Oh dear, thinks this reader — who has read her share of angry books — is this going to be a 250-page harangue?

It isn’t. Nora pulls herself together and gives us a tale that I simply cannot get out of my mind. Not because of the final blow dealt to her, which is a real stunner, but because of the chilly precision with which her creator, Messud, draws Nora’s complicity in her own sorry predicament and artfully conveys its insidiousness.

Nora, an artist manqué, teaches third grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Five years ago a new student appeared in her class, Reza Shadid, son of a Lebanese academic, Skandar, and an Italian artist, Sirena. The family has come from Paris for the school year while Skandar takes up an academic fellowship and Sirena works on a complicated piece of installation art for an exhibition to be mounted in Paris the next year. Nora is smitten with little Reza, a beautiful, gentle soul who, however, becomes the victim of two older, cloddish boys who call him a terrorist. That ugly incident draws Nora into the Shadid family’s ambit. Soon she is sharing a studio (and its cost) with Sirena, babysitting Reza while his parents pursue their various engagements, and taking long, circuitous walks afterward from the Shadid home to her own with Skandar.

Motivated by the studio and the company of another artist, Nora resumes her own work, the construction of painstakingly accurate dioramas. She plans a series of miniature recreations of the sequestering rooms of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Neel. To finish it off on another note, she will recreate Edie Sedgwick’s room at The Factory. Picked out in meticulous detail and complete with solitary, isolate occupant, each space is — or will be — supplied with a minuscule, scarcely noticeable amulet called Joy.

There is much to ponder in Nora’s choosing to create these tiny arenas for a vicarious life, habitats that draw people to peer in and contemplate the person inside. Nora craves proper notice, but other elements in her life also resonate with this closed-in art, literally so in the fate of her mother, often reflected upon, who died slowly, increasingly paralyzed, from a neurodegenerative disease. The two other family members we meet are very models of New England costivenesss: her father, whose time is spent doing not much, napping, and waiting for Nora to phone or show up, and her mother’s sister, Aunt Baby, so called because of her essential innocence, whose life has been lived in thankless doting on the children of others. Both are “mild septuagenarians not even given to sentimental reminiscence, stultifyingly locked in their present of small ailments, the weather, the television news, which news was full of nothing.”  

Nora herself begins to live her life through the Shadids, falling in love with each one of them, feeling enlarged and vital, as if she’s broken through to reality. She increasingly neglects her own work in the studio to help the other woman put together her installation, a construction called Wonderland, tiresome to me in its conceits, but certainly believable and ideal as the mise-en-scène for the book’s most unfortunate episode. Messud brings us deeply into Nora’s mind, and we take in with dismay the two older Shadids’ casual slights and presumptions and Nora’s rationalization of each situation.

To an extent, Nora’s failure as an artist or, indeed, as a fulfilled person, has been and remains a failure of will, not just in failing to keep her eye on the ball — though there is certainly that — but in failing to turn her back on apparent obligations, to her parents’ wishes, and later, to nursing her mother through her final years. Now in her rage, she sees she was under the impression that if she did whatever life called on her to do, that doing it, or despite doing it — rewards and obstacles tend to fuse in this outlook — she would end up where she wanted to be. This is not uniquely, but still dominantly, a woman’s predicament: “Men have figured out how to spawn children and leave them to others to raise, how to placate their mothers with a mere phone call from afar, how to insist, as calmly as if insisting that the sun is in the sky, as if any other possibility were madness, that their work, of all things, is what must — and must first — be done. Such a strength has, in its youthful vision, no dogs or gardens or picnics, no children, no sky: it is focused only on one thing, whether it’s on money, or on power, or on a paintbrush and a canvas. It’s a failure of vision, in fact, anyone with half a brain can see that. It’s myopia. But that’s what it takes. You need to see everything else — everyone else — as expendable, as less than yourself.”

Art is, after all, having your own way; and Sirena possesses the necessary unconsciousness of what might be called decency to have it, to make it in every sense. Neither she nor her husband are bad people — well, not exactly, though each is guilty of a serious transgression; but chiefly, and in the end, devastatingly, they are simply not what Nora wants them to be where she is concerned: “[S]ometimes I’d picture the three of us, installed in a farmhouse in Vermont, or in Tuscany, or in a thatched bungalow on a Caribbean island, in order that we might live cheaply enough to make art…. I knew the layouts of these various houses, the unfolding of their rooms. I built them in my mind, and we inhabited each of them at different times.”

Nora’s tropism towards helping and her fantasy of belonging dovetail disastrously with the Shadids’ matter-of-fact pursuit of their own aims. Messud is astonishingly deft in getting across the complex nature of the situation, holding consciousness and obliviousness, neediness and taking, virtue and trespass in a state of dynamic fluidity. She has also pulled off the very difficult feat of combining literary allusion and thematic recurrence with what is real in the world: human particularity. This is the sort of novel one would like to sit down and discuss for hours, and I am sure that that is just what will happen, ardently and disputatiously, across the land.