Marie’s Reading: “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud

the woman upstairsNora Marie Eldridge is angry.  She’s not crazy, she assures us.  Just angry.  Really, really angry.  She’s a Woman Upstairs–a single woman of a certain age who feels her life has passed her by.  And then, wonderfully, magically, she meets a family whose members fill her every emotional need.  She loves each and every one of the Shahids–Reza, the boy who is one of her third-grade students; his brilliant professor father, Skandar; and then Sirena, Reza’s accomplished artist mother.

Nora finds herself pulled into their world (or perhaps she pulls herself in), and from there her life is entangled with those of the Shahids.  Nora’s story is one of obsessive love, the building up and loss of identity, and, above all, seething anger.

Nora feels the rage of mediocrity, the rage of feeling cheated out of her dreams of being an artist.  Her rage is that of the “good girl.”  As she puts it [language warning for the delicate]:

I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone–every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too?  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; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

That’s on page one, our introduction to Nora.  It gives you a good idea of what lies in store thematically, stylistically, and on a character level, too.   We’re on board with her, I think, because we can all understand where she’s coming from.  Who hasn’t been where she is?   Everyone, at least once in a while, has felt betrayed by life and the world, bereft of friends and misunderstood, afraid of not reaching our potential, resentful that we’ve given so much to others that we’ve left nothing for ourselves.    The question is how we deal with those feelings.  Nora chooses rage, obsession, and then rage again.

It’s wonderful to read a novel that can appeal to a reader on many different levels, and for many different reasons.  Readalike ideas for this one popped into my head by the dozen while I was reading.   Just for fun and comparative reasons, you could try Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (as I highly doubt Nora’s name was an accident).  You might try Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground for the same reason.  Also the play Amadeus, by Peter  Shaffer, which immediately came to mind toward the end of the novel.  Nora and Salieri have quite a bit in common, I think.

If you find yourself responding to Nora’s rage, and the reasons behind it, try the classic The Women’s Room by Marilyn French.  If you like Nora’s narrative voice, and appreciate the uncertainty around her reliability and her mental state, you could try Schroder by Amity Gaige or A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth.  The latter is a trifle dark and has a lot more black humor, but it’s a great peek into a damaged mind.  I talked about it here.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was in my head as I read, and I think it’s a good readalike choice if you enjoy the intellectualism of Nora, as well as the discussions of art, identity, and relationship to the world and other people.  The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai, a charmingly quirky story about a librarian who takes a young patron on an inadvertent road trip, might appeal if you enjoy stories of cross-generational friendship (and revolutionary artistic ideals, of course).  And if you enjoy books about teachers and the students they adore, you might try Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, a novel of linked stories about a teacher who more or less lives through the seventh-grade students she sees as gifted.



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