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.’
Things 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.