Claire Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs,’ reviewed by Ron Charles

April 23, 2013

For practical advice about how women can thrive and control their destinies, check out “Lean In” by Facebook’s ever-gracious COO, Sheryl Sandberg.

But maybe after a hard day of believing in yourself and using “we” words, you just want to luxuriate in a fire of cleansing rage. Go ahead: Push the billionaire’s affirmations aside and listen instead to the she-devil in Claire Messud’s ferocious new novel. Lean in — she’ll singe your eyebrows off.

The Woman Upstairs” arrives at a curious time in our national conversation about gender roles. Decades after the protests over the Equal Rights Amendment, “angry feminist” is still a slur, as though anger were a ridiculous reaction to persistent social inequality. Worse, the words “bitter” and “shrill” sit in their silos, ready to be launched at any woman who drops her pleasant smile while debating day-care availability, reproductive rights or sexual harassment.

What a slap in the face, then, to be hit by Messud’s opening line: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know.”

This is Nora Eldridge: 42, single, childless, a respected teacher at Appleton Elementary in Cambridge, Mass. “Don’t all women feel the same?” she insists. “The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. . . . I’ll set the world on fire. I just might.”


”The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud. (Knopf)

Think Medea as a third-grade teacher.

Even the title of this novel is marinated in bile. Like someone scratching an infected wound, Nora returns to the phrase “the woman upstairs” again and again: “We’re not the madwomen in the attic — they get lots of play, one way or another,” she says. “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, without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.”

This may be rage, but it’s fantastically smart rage — anger that never distorts, even in the upper registers. When Nora complains about women like herself who dutifully tuck themselves away, she ricochets from Charlotte Bronte to Jean Rhys to Henry David Thoreau to Ralph Ellison. Wherever she digs, she hits rich veins of indignation.

Messud’s previous novel, the wonderful “Emperor’s Children,” sprawled out over more than 400 witty pages to skewer Manhattan’s young cultural elite. Her new book is an entirely different creature: a tightly wound monologue with the intensity of a novella that reads more like a curse.

What exactly has ruffled the antique doily covering Nora’s dull, respectable life — “a world in which the day’s great excitement is the arrival of the Garnet Hill catalog”? What stirred her wrath just as she was settling down to the arthritic realization that “your life has a shape and a horizon, and that you’ll probably never be president, or a millionaire, and that if you’re a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way”?

It starts with an 8-year-old boy. Reza Shahid is an adorable student from France who joins her third-grade class for a year. One day, after some bullies beat him up, Nora calls Reza’s mother, Sirena, with the bad news. An Italian married to a Lebanese academic, Sirena is an up-and-coming installation artist. She’s glamorous and irresistible, the sort of magnetic personality who manipulates with delectable flattery. The two women immediately become friends. Nora vibrates in a state of “joyful panic,” her own long-dormant artistic ambitions suddenly bloom, and she dares to unpack her “lifelong secret certainty of specialness.”

Anger provides the heat, but the novel’s real energy comes from its intellectual fuel, its all-consuming analytical drive. Nora and Sirena rent a studio together, and soon they’re spending weekends and evenings on their art: Sirena’s piece is a vast, surreal re-creation of Wonderland, while Nora constructs a tiny replica of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom (“I’m nobody! Who are you?”). Those disparate art projects suggest what separates these two very different women. Between the heaves of storm, Nora can be an engaging commentator on everything from aesthetics to international relations to aging.

Indeed, awakened by Sirena’s encouragement from years of narrowly constrained duty, Nora feels aroused and delighted. All should be lovely, but Messud keeps this friendship tightly sealed in Nora’s obsessive, ruminative voice. There’s something clammy and claustrophobic about her affection. Soon she’s babysitting Reza and fantasizing about Sirena’s husband. You can catch the faint scent of some toxic mold from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” or “Notes on a Scandal” or even “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Yet Nora claims, “If you’d told me my own story about someone else, I would have assured you that this person was completely unhinged” — demonstrating exactly the kind of self-knowledge that keeps the reader off-balance.

Even as that psychological drama races toward a dark climax, Nora seduces us with her piercing assessment of the way young women are acculturated, the way older women are trapped. “When you’re a girl, you never let on that you are proud, or that you know you’re better at history, or biology, or French, than the girl who sits beside you,” she says. “It doesn’t occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable.” If Nora is a monster, she’s also a sympathetic and perceptive victim. But of what? Bad luck? Self-pity? A chauvinistic society?

A more polemic, far less enjoyable novel would hand us the answer. But Messud isn’t writing an op-ed, and her story’s feminist critique of America rubs raw against her deconstruction of sisterhood. What eventually rises above these gender issues is Nora’s pained howl. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman: It’s hard not to feel your own shameful anxieties and fragile hopes being flayed by these braided strands of confession and blame.

Lean in. I dare you.

Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS

By Claire Messud

Knopf. 253 pp. $25.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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