The Woman Upstairs

Nora Eldridge is an angry woman, a 42-year-old elementary school teacher and would-be artist looking back on the events of five years ago that have brought her to this pass. Nora is a spinster, and we’re encouraged to believe that it’s her lonely, unmarried status with its impoverished lifestyle and social stigma that have caused the rage:

The Woman Upstairs … We’re not the madwomen in the attic – they get lots of play, one way or another. 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 … not a soul registers that we are furious.’

woman upstairsThings might have been very different, though. Back in her late 30s, Nora fell in love with a whole family. It began with eight-year-old Reza, a beautiful and endearing child who joins the class she is teaching. Nora falls in love with him as she might with any other masterpiece of art, and then she gets to know his parents: Skandar Shahid is an academic of Lebanese origin, taking a year’s teaching sabbatical at Harvard, whilst Sirena is an Italian installation artist. Gradually it’s the relationship with Sirena that becomes the dominant one. She is looking for someone to share workshop space with her, and Nora leaps at the chance. Nora has always wanted to be an artist, but her circumstances have been against her. She lacks the self-confidence, the ruthlessness she believes any successful artist needs, and then she missed her chances by tending to her sick mother. Nora has chosen the path of the good girl, and is suitably scarred by it.

The professional artist, Sirena, represents an opportunity for Nora to come good on her talent. At last she is moving in the ‘right’ circles, and she feels inspired. The Shahids have opened up her life, made her feel wanted and admired, which Nora, in her wounded vanity, badly needs. But the difference between the two women is signalled in their respective art works: Nora is making perfect, miniature replicas of real artist’s rooms, while Sirena is creating a large scale, innovative installation called Wonderland, whose purpose is to awaken and respond to all its spectators’ desires. There’s something cramped and repressed about Nora, some unconscious pact being made with a small-scale life that won’t just affect her art, but cripples her entire personality.

Having been told this is the story of an angry woman, Nora actually spends the vast majority of the narrative caught up in the heady rush of the Shahid’s company, thrilled and over-excited, like a child who has enjoyed a party too much. Things begin to go wrong – as they inevitably will, since Nora has wilfully blinded herself to the terms of their friendship – and then one event provides the final dénouement, the insult or offence par excellence that casts Nora into a kind of permanent outer darkness.

Now this is always a dangerous strategy in a story, to make one single event carry the emotional consequences and significance of the entire story. That’s a very large burden for any single event to bear, and whilst Claire Messud does quite well at picking something undeniably surprising, it still messes with the balance of the story. Nora acts as if she has been intolerably wronged – but her reaction ignores her own culpability in the matter as she has also violated Sirena’s family and her art space. The rage, which was potentially interesting had it been a comment on what society does to older, unmarried women, turns out to be rage as a defence against being caught out, against the humiliation of her own wrongdoing. This is absolutely a trigger for rage, and we are rarely as angry as when we feel in the wrong in a way we can’t admit. But it mixes up Nora’s motives and undermines the sympathy we can give her. Nora is a tragic figure, a woman who so desperately needs love and attention that she lives in doubt and paranoia, forced to abandon trust in others because the demands she places upon them are just too great to be met. It’s an intriguing character study, but it lacks the oomph of a valid social critique; Nora is not Everywoman.

It may just be a very British reaction, but for me, Nora becomes a disappointing character because she has no sense of humour about herself; she takes herself way too seriously. This must be in part because my own notion of the spinster is informed by the brilliant characterisations of Barbara Pym, who was able to infer layers of rage and resignation and irony into the way her older, unmarried women picked up their knitting. I suppose what I love about Pym’s characters is that they always engage pragmatically with the real world, whereas poor Nora engages only with her own fantasies, and despises the world for refusing to satisfy them. But maybe that is ultimately a very pertinent comment on the way that contemporary society does work, and the perils it holds out to the lonely.



44 thoughts on “The Woman Upstairs

    • It is good in its way, definitely well written, and the parts about art were very interesting. But given that there is a stigma against portraying angry women, I wish that part of the book had been more coherent, and therefore more powerful!

  1. What an interesting review! But, gosh, the book sure sounds like a “downer.” (Nevertheless, now I want to now what on earth she did to cause the rift. So maybe I’ll have tor read it after all). And I agree with you completely concerning Barbara Pym’s characters.

    • Ah, it’s not depressing, I should say in that case. Or at least I didn’t find it so. I read willingly to the end, and enjoyed the quality of the writing. Plus the bits on art were good. So there’s a fair amount to recommend it. It’s just that I am fussy about character motivation and love it when an author can produce characters that say something about society at large, not just their own issues. Pym is a wonder at doing that! 🙂

  2. I’ve read more than one raving review and since I wanted to try Claire Messud, I got it and started it on the weekend. I only read a few pages, I just didn’t like the voice. I think it says a lot about me too that I’m not keen on angry people. People who get angry, I don’t mind but those who stay stuck in their anger and without any sense of humour – as you mention – they just annoy me. I might try it again anyway. It’s always interesting to see what characters and why provoke a strong reaction in us.

    • Funnily enough, Nora stops being angry probably a few pages after you gave up, and for the majority of the book is actually pretty cheerful. I felt a bit short-changed, as I’d been intrigued to see this ‘angry’ person! 🙂 But like you, I do agree that being stuck in anger is simply a rather dull and unenlightened position, and not worthy of a main protagonist. And yes, I love seeing what provokes a strong reaction in me – one of the really fascinating things about reading.

  3. Mmm the more I read about this the more I think it sounds like an interesting look at one aspect of singledom for women but, as you say, sounds nothing like an Everywoman story. I hope people won’t take it as that but there are so few stories about women who stay single (and so many are stories of depressed ladies forced into singledom) I still worry they will. That quote you put at the top is just such an anthema to my experience – I’m the quiet, permenantly single type but I can’t imagine never making a sound behind closed doors despite being furious. Sounds to me like it’s more her frustrated artistic hopes alongside her single life which have made her life into one of quiet deseration maybe? Or perhaps I don’t get it because of a generational difference? Barbara Pym as a second opinion for everyone!

    • Well quite. If Nora is quietly furious when she puts out her own rubbish, this book suggested to me it was entirely her own fault, and within her own abilities to solve. Definitely the frustrated artistic hopes are a big factor here. Though again, if Nora is only creating in the hope of popular success, understandable as that may be, there’s still a taint of narcissism that she needs to resolve before she’s in a healthier position about that. I felt it was the story of a woman with a personality disorder, rather than any real comment on being single. I’d very much hope other people would see that too.

  4. I’m still very interested in reading The Woman Upstairs, but I’m glad to have a recommendation for Barbara Pym, too — I’d never heard the name before.

  5. Your review of this oddly evokes “What I Loved” by Suri Hustvedt for me…but I’m not sure how I feel about tackling this one myself, given your conclusions! The power dynamics between Nora and the family sound creepy and suspenseful, though…

    • You know, I can sort of see that, now you say it. Her style is not a million miles away from Siri Hustvedt’s (though the latter is better, I think). It’s a well written book, Courtney, and I think you’d enjoy that aspect of it. If you are having a day when you feel fed up of your beautiful family (and it can happen!), then it may be pleasant to read of Nora’s intense envy for that kind of life…. 🙂

    • Well, as someone who is conflict avoidant, I was rather hoping to read a novel that showed me how positive anger can be. Theoretically I know this is so: anger at genuine injustice is essential and moving and a force for change, hurray. But this wasn’t the book for that. I adore Pym, right behind you there.

  6. I agree with comments about the characters in Barbara Pym. Here I was struck by your opening sentence – does being unmarried carry social stigma these days or is this book set seventy years earlier perhaps? I know lots of happlily unmarried women (from 30 to 80+) and none seem to have suffered any stigmatisation as far as I can tell (I don’t think any of them knit …)

    • It’s very much a book set in the present moment, but I think the question is less what society thinks (which is nebulous and hard to pin down at the best of times) than whether it is something the character believes intensely, and then the personal reasons for that belief (and how convincing they are). There was only one moment when Nora said something that I felt was poignant and enlightening about her status, and that was when she said that the woman upstairs never comes first with anyone. I could see the depth of her loneliness in that comment. I think it’s more accurate to say that loneliness and lack of self-worth are Nora’s problems, amplified by the absence of a partner, and her feeling marked out by this. But there’s a lot of other stuff in there, too, resentment at having been a ‘good girl’ and not struck out for her own desires, and the failure of her hopes for artistic success. As for knitting, I think that’s more a sign of Pym’s era, rather than singledom! 🙂

    • I feel like that about so many books these days – I hover on the edge of all the issue-led novels out there, failing to warm to them. It’s a good idea to hang fire for a bit, or else to skim the first few pages in a shop or library. There’s just so much to be read, it’s hard to commit to something of only middling interest!

  7. I don’t think it’s you. I think maybe the personality flaw is overplayed, which makes the character just plain annoying. I already can’t stand her just from your objective description, and agree she seems a bit unrealistic in her extreme.

    • It’s nice to see you! I’ve been wondering where you’ve been. Yes, I think overplayed is a good way of describing it. The intent to create a character who has a good reason for her anger isn’t quite backed up by the things that happen to her. Ach, so many books fall foul of this in the desire to be sensational!

      • Agreed. Do you ever wonder if the author wrote the book in chunks and forgot to read it once it was all compiled, so the same point or idea is examined in each chapter til you want to set the book on fire? The book never moves on because there’s never any climax. The whole book is just lead up and flashback repeated.

        Frankly, I wonder if authors that do this are unimaginative and spin in circles, are perhaps afraid to move the character from the security blanket of introspection, to just let the action do the emotional work and trust the reader will see it.

        Or maybe they’re just narcissistic twats who think their in-love-with-their-own-voices, waxing-on-philosophies are some new brilliance on the human condition.

      • It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? One thing I read, and it probably has to be taken with a pinch of salt, was that her husband, James Wood, had written praise-filled reviews of Italian writer, Elena Ferrante, and the author of this particular piece wondered whether, unconsciously, Clare Messud was trying to write an American version of Ferrante’s book ‘Days of Abandonment.’ I always marvel that people can write fiction because it is so vulnerable-making. Everything on the inside comes out in a book, and if you are not emotionally coherent or if you aren’t in full possession of your intentions, those things are going to show. I also think Messud is on an uphill battle because of the strange but definitely pervasive dislike in contemporary culture for portraits of angry women. If she’s fencing with that prohibition in any way, it will probably affect her, too. It is a lot easier to write about angry women in Italy than it is in America, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

      • Hmm, now this adds some new level to the story. If she is rewriting a previous version that’s pretty slick, and we can’t lay the blame for a boring protagonist on her shoulders. I’ll cut her some slack.

        Now, this fiction-writing, chest-cracking business. I didn’t realize fiction did that. I think I will read my fiction differently from now on with that in mind. I also think that maybe I should write more fiction because honey, I am nothing if not full disclosure with nowhere to put it.

        I also did not realize we had an obstacle to angry-woman lit. I thought all women who were plugged in to what’s happening in America were naturally angry. How can you be aware, and not be angry? We’ve travelled back to the 1800’s somehow on a wagon made of Bibles. I just assumed American women were writing about how they felt and other women were reading it. I also thought we’d gotten over chastising our women for being angry once we started celebrating their gun skills. I guess I just assumed “I am cool with it” meant “we are too.”

        No wonder we’re all on Xanax. Our ad execs tell women to walk in heels and carry a big gun, have dinner on the table for when hubby gets home, and sprinkle everything with forgiveness and sunshine. In the meantime, our women are getting beat-downs from the back alleys to the boardrooms.

        I feel a rant coming on…

      • Oh no one would do that rant better than you – go for it! I completely agree. Everyone is allowed to be angry at the sight of injustice, and it’s not fair if women have to make pretty all the time. There has been so much fuss about this book and the fact it has an angry female protagonist says, to me at least, a lot about the acceptability of female rage. I’m with you – it has to be acceptable to express it in any non-violent way.

  8. Your analysis of what’s wrong with her anger here articulates something I’ve been struggling with since I finished it. Ultimately I found her anger simply wearing. I kept mentally comparing the book to Villette and wishing Messud had done something much subtler with her treatment of Norah’s voice — the in-your-face quality of her anger is clearly a deliberate choice, but she turns out, as you say, to be deeply implicated in the matrix of betrayal and there’s no sense of discovery about her or her motives as the story goes along. And that final ‘revelation’ about the video seemed painfully predictable.

    • Yes, if Nora had grown in self-awareness over the course of the narrative, that would have helped. Though of course that isn’t what Claire Messud wants to do here. But that desire to shock the reader is such a hard one to pull off. Alas, there lingers instead the awful insidious feeling that telling Nora to get over herself might be the only thing to do… 😉

  9. I have tried a Claire Messud’s novel before (The Last life, I checked on my own blog because the title escaped me)and I had the same experience: not bad, but not great. I remember feeling that she might have tried something a bit too challenging. I don’t think I’m going to give it another chance though, because the theme doesn’t really appeal to me.

    • There are so many authors out there, aren’t there? I have The Emperor’s Children by her to read, and after this one I do think I’ll give it a go. But I do understand – reading time is precious!

  10. Very interesting. There’s been quite a dust up in the press over this book because of that anger and how unlikeable it makes the character. I don’t require my main characters to be likeable so it has all been really interesting. I expect I will get around to reading this sometime but you have assuaged my curiosity for now.

    • Oh has there now? You see I thought it was interesting because of the weird cultural law against the portrayal of angry women. I mean, what’s that all about? So I was curious to see what the book was like. I don’t need likeable characters either. What I want is characters so well explained that I understand them perfectly and can see the world through their eyes. Messud does a good job with her protagonist, I think, but her aims and her results aren’t quite aligned. It makes for a good discussion book, that’s for sure!

  11. Derp. I commented on a more recent post asking what you thought of The Woman Upstairs because I hadn’t seen this one in my feed reader yet. Ignore me. I’m dumb.

    A benefit of reading the end — among many! — is that the whole book didn’t have to live or die by how Truly Shocking the final event turned out to be. I don’t like making things hang on an Unknown Shocking Event. It can’t be as shocking as your imagination.

    Nora IS completely humorless! She is! You are correct. But I still liked how angry she was, I still thought that was an interesting thing to hang a book on.

    • Now that is the best justification for reading the ending that I have ever come across. Thank you! I am a bit of a sneak-peeker and now I know why it is a good thing. I really did think that the ‘angry woman’ thing was a good idea. I suppose I could have stood her a bit angrier than she was, and at more than just the Shahids. But I do like a book that will tackle a difficult topic. It takes a lot of courage to challenge cultural conventions, so good for Messud.

  12. A puzzling read. Messud was at Sydney writers Festival in May and there is an intriguing interview with her on the website. She was at pains to downplay how “angry” her protagonist was! Almost don’t worry it will get better and you will not be stuck with an angry woman for the duration!! At the time I was yet to read the book, and while it was absorbing, and unsettling I didn’t sense that Nora’s anger dissipated. And that’s OK too!!!
    Incidentally, The Woman Upstairs is the choice for next week’s First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV Australia The program can be accessed online and is invariably most engaging. I am certainly looking forward to some further vigorous discussion there.

    • Ooh thank you for the heads up about the program on Messud – don’t you love the way online TV makes it possible to share across the world? What reading this book did suggest to me was that America has a big problem with angry women. In the UK a few years back we had a rush of TV programs and books about middle-aged women simply criticizing contemporary culture and they were quite popular. I don’t think we are any better at handling angry women in the flesh – certainly they get bad press when they crop up in reality, but as a concept it seems fine (and of course the programs were humourous, which makes everything okay). It’s definitely a subject that needs treatment, and good on Messud for taking it on.

  13. I’m so curious about this book–I have heard many things about it–both that it is exceptionally good and that Nora is a massively annoying character. I am sort of drawn to the story as I think I might be somewhat sympathetic having been thrust into a similar situation–now being on my own and mostly liking it but still feeling the oppressiveness, too, of a solitary lifestyle–sometimes wishing there was someone I could turn to and make a comment but there being no on there. I don’t know that I have that sort of anger though. Anyway, I will read this at some point as I went and bought it as soon as I heard good reviews. Oh, and I love Barbara Pym in any case–think she does a marvelous job of writing the spinster life and bringing the emotions underneath out so perfectly.

    • Danielle, you just have to read this because I want so much to know what you make of it! Pick it up soon, and promise me you’ll tell me all about what you think!

  14. I liked the voice in the first few pages very much. I thought it articulated a reality for single women that hasn’t been addressed in the current generation. I missed that sharpness when it veered off into adoration, though the writing was very good and I enjoyed it. As the book went along, I felt like you, Litlove, that Nora has a personality disorder, and I began to think of her as an unreliable narrator rather than an insightful one as she seemed at the beginning.

    • That’s so interesting – and reassuring! – to hear your experience was so very similar to mine. I felt she swerved away from a bold and intriguing premise. But then challenging a cultural taboo so often makes writers do that. Very tricky ground.

  15. I have this book on my TBR. I usually enjoy “unlikable” characters, so we’ll see. Have you read Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller? I also has an bitter spinster in it, but I thought it was really well done, a great book.

    • I loved Notes on a Scandal and thought it was a fab book. It tackled two taboos, really, the bitter spinster and the woman teacher having an affair with her student. I really want you to read The Woman Upstairs now, Ruthiella, and come back here to tell me what you think!

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  17. I really loved this review, Litlove – perhaps I’m especially taken with this one as I’ve recently read the novel in question, and can therefore properly engage with your insights.

    You know, I’d almost completely forgotten the ‘angry woman’ set up at the beginning (and I love the acid tongue of a properly wrathful woman, so I was quite excited by the prospect), and I certainly neglected to reflect on the fact that I thought I was getting some sort of broader social commentary on single women of a certain age…it just became a different book, with a very different narrator.

    You’re so right about her culpability, too. I didn’t feel terribly sympathetic – Nora was quite a disturbed and disturbing character in the end. I did thoroughly enjoy Messud’s writing, on the other hand, and like you particularly appreciated the writing about art.

    I wish we could be part of a cosy book club – damn this distance.

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