The Woman Upstairs
By Claire Messud (Virago 304pp £14.99)
In Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, her protagonist Nora Eldridge is an angry woman. 'It was supposed to say "Great Artist" on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say "such a good teacher/daughter/friend" instead,' she rages, in an opening salvo that is both a riff on her own goodness and a defiant 'fuck you' to a callous world.
The Emperor's Children (2006), the novel that made Messud's reputation, traces the history of aspirational thirty-year-olds in Manhattan prior to and after the events of 9/11. Told from multiple viewpoints, it is impressive for its insight into the motivation of a wide range of characters. Although equally perceptive about human behaviour, The Woman Upstairs is narrated solely through the first-person perspective of unremarkable Nora, 'the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy ... and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound'. An elementary-school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nora, aged 37, has abandoned her dreams of being a serious artist, although she reserves a room in her apartment for artistic dabbling. She has had lovers and dreamed of having children, but now lives alone: she is 'what they used to call a spinster, but don't anymore, because it implies that you're dried up, and none of us wants to be that'. After her mother's early death, Nora has become a dutiful daughter to an ageing but undemanding father. There are visits to her mother's sister, Aunt Baby, another single woman who has 'always been the sidekick', and meetings with Didi, a college friend whose originality and self-confidence Nora envies.
When the Shahid family, on a year's sabbatical from Paris, irrupt exotically into this uneventful life, Nora falls in love with each of them. She feels an instant rapport with the 'luminous' Reza, who joins her class and is a victim of xenophobic bullying. His mother, Sirena, is Italian, an installation artist whose career has been disrupted while her Lebanese husband, Skandar, takes up a fellowship at Harvard. Within weeks, Nora finds herself sharing a studio with Sirena, babysitting Reza and enjoying conversations about history and ethics with Skandar. As her friendship with Sirena blossoms, Nora's own creativity is revitalised. While Sirena constructs Wonderland, a large-scale multimedia installation that plays with ideas from Lewis Carroll's books about Alice and is to be unveiled in Paris, Nora focuses on a series of miniature dioramas. Tentatively entitled A Room of One's Own?, they reproduce rooms that were significant in the lives of creative women. The action that follows is a slow build-up to a blistering conclusion, when the self-deluding Nora discovers just how far the Shahid family value the 'Woman Upstairs'.
This is a very literary novel: Nora's name sounds dull and reliable, but it recalls Ibsen's Nora in A Doll's House and Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle. There are references to Dostoevsky's stymied narrator in Notes from Underground, Gilbert and Gubar's landmark study of female writers, The Madwoman in the Attic, to Jean Rhys skulking in Paris hotels and Chekhov's 'The Black Monk'. Emily Dickinson's Amherst bedroom and Virginia Woolf at Rodmell are the subjects of two of Nora's dioramas. But it is the spirit of Lucy Jordan, the woman who recognised at 37, in a song made famous by Marianne Faithfull, she would 'never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair', that most persistently haunts Nora's imagination and may be the clue to her failure. For Lucy is an anachronism. Her frustration and neurosis belong to the era of Sylvia Plath and Nora's own mother, whom she describes as 'fierce and strange and doomed', women of the 1950s and 1960s, and not to Nora, who has a rewarding job, an apartment of her own and can do what she wants.
As the reader is guided through the events that lead to the final crisis, Nora's anger appears increasingly misplaced. She may be the 'woman upstairs', but her limitations are self-imposed, her art derivative and half-hearted. Sirena, hampered by domestic commitments and forced to spend time away from her Paris studio, makes art anyway, deftly enlisting Nora as childminder, studio assistant (and sharer of the rent) and even husband pacifier - all those long walks home after babysitting, during which Skandar rehearses his ideas to his wife's admiring friend. As Nora recognises, when she finally sees Wonderland installed in Paris, Sirena's art is joyous, inventive and resourceful. It is the ruthless annexation of everything available, including Nora's most intimate secrets, that fuels Nora's wrath.
Nora is a brilliant creation - waspish, moaning, self-pitying and dependent. Apparently open about what is going on, she lacks insight, and her awakening is cruel. Equally persuasive are Messud's gentler portraits of Nora's father and Aunt Baby, with their gallant attempts to live as though their lives are pleasurable and worthwhile, their interminable conversations about ailments and dying friends, and the ugliness of their frugal surroundings. In contrast, and perhaps because Nora invests them with so much romance, the Shahid family seem both larger than life and somewhat fantastic.
The Woman Upstairs ends as it begins, with Nora's anger. Do we believe in her threats finally to 'fucking well live'? She's hardly Fay Weldon's She-Devil or Plath's man-eating Lady Lazarus, or even Bertha Mason, avid for revenge. Is she likely to change? Depressingly, and this is a measure of Claire Messud's success in imagining Nora, an enduring and impotent rage seems the most probable outcome.
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Pamela Norris is a freelance writer and critic.