The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

11th Jul 2013

The Woman Upstairs
Before The Woman Upstairs hit the shelves, there was a great deal of hoo-ha when Claire Messud had to fend off a ridiculously sexist - as well as ridiculously boring - question about whether she would like to be friends with the novel’s “unbearably grim” protagonist, Nora.

“For heaven’s sake,” she snapped to Publishers Weekly. “What kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with… Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus?

“Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis?”

This vehement defence - perhaps unintentionally - saw Nora become eagerly anticipated as a character who’d sink her teeth into you as much as you could sink yours into her. This vehement defence – perhaps unintentionally – saw Nora become eagerly anticipated as a character who’d sink her teeth into you as much as you could sink yours into her. A real nasty piece of work, with blood-spattered psyche, criminal tendencies and a closet full of skeletons.

She’s a little different. In fact she’s not what I was imagining at all. In fact, although you might not like being friends with her, she’s the sort of person we all know, or know of: a grade-school teacher in her late thirties, whose dream of becoming an artist has fallen by the wayside thanks to the trappings of her family and her own lack of commitment. She’s pretty bitter about being that person.

“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… the woman upstairs is who we are… and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.”

When she encounters the glamorous Shahid family: beautiful young Reza, intellectual Skandar and Italian installation artist Sirena, she sees them as her way out of her aggravatingly humdrum, single life.

Soon she’s sharing a studio with Sirena, enjoying cosy walks home with Skandar and growing increasingly motherly to Shahid. She’s starting to want their life – want them.

There’s not a great deal in the way of plot in The Woman Upstairs. Instead, Messud offers up a carefully dissected view of Nora’s motivations and deep-seated anger. The book succeeds – and falls down – where her character does.

She’s a brilliantly crafted protagonist: believable, identifiable. She is also definitely “unbearably grim,” although not in the same way as Hamlet, Oedipus or Humbert Humbert.

Although she’s screamed “FUCK YOU ALL” by the end of the first page, she’s more grasping than evil: the main tragedy in her life, at the beginning of the novel, is not that she has lost, but that she has not achieved. It is this inferiority complex which motivates every action she takes.

Any malice she has comes from lusting after what someone else has or furiously smarting after something which she perceives has been taken from her. It’s this, combined with her ordinariness, which makes her so grim: she could be you. We could all, if we felt so slighted, if a few wrong steps were taken, become as bitter and jealous as Nora.

But this is also why she never quite makes it to Humbert Humbert levels of nasty: there is not enough of the uncanny about her. She’s not reckless enough for you to take proper risks, and she recognises her self-delusion as just that, before it gets the chance to spur her on to fully grab what she’s lusting after.

There are echoes of Jean Brodie and Zoe Heller’s Barbara in her, but she’s not formidable enough for you to be sure that she’s going to follow through with her threats and promises. From the start she’s written as, by her own admission, a pathetic failure.

It’s a shame that she’s not scarier, especially because Claire Messud, both in her PW interview and in this novel – where Nora spends an inordinate amount of time constructing intricate dioramas of female writer suicides (like Vice magazine but without the tasteless idiocy) – is clearly attempting to draw a line between anger and women, particularly women who have been unable to fulfill their potential.

It’s about time that there was a properly angry female character in this respect, not a faux-angry one like Nora or Gone Girl’s Amy, who at first glance appear to rail against the restraints of sexism but who are really just longing for a 2.4 kids and husband scenario.

Like Amy, Nora’s anger is borne of a deep seated desire to have a perfect marriage, she longs for Skandar far more than she longs for her art.

I, for one will welcome a real female Humbert Humbert – when she comes – with open arms, even if I am slightly terrified at the same time. But The Woman Upstairs doesn’t deliver this. Publisher’s Weekly missed the point spectacularly. Nora is a little too similar to someone you might be friends with.

The Woman Upstairs was published in hardback by Virago on 30th May.