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.”
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”?