Review: The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Verdict: Good, but heavy-handed.

The exciting thing about The Woman Upstairs is the intensity of its protagonist’s anger. Nora is an elementary school teacher and artist manque, who bitterly regrets the opportunities she has given up in her life in the interest of being “a good girl”. Into her life comes the Shahid family: the young son, Reza, is in her class; the mother, Sirena, a video installation artist who befriends Nora; and the father, Skandar, with whom Nora comes to enjoy discussing philosophy and politics. Feeling that she has been brought to life by these new friendships, Nora throws herself into the Shahids’ lives, baby-sitting for Reza and sharing a studio space with Sirena, where they each work on their own art and then, increasingly, more and more just on Sirena’s.

There is, of course, a betrayal coming. The extent to which Nora’s relationships with the Shahids are based in fantasy is not clear. Certainly Nora is projecting an awful lot onto those relationships, and Messud lets the reader sit with that discomfort. Nora of the present day, who narrates the story and looks back on those years with the Shahids, constantly tells us that she knows what we’re thinking, how we’re viewing her.

In a way this makes the uncertainty worse, because we know that we’re probably never ever going to find out what the Shahids thought about all this. Did they truly like her the way she liked them, or were they being kind, or were they using her, or some combination of those things? The uncertainty of this, combined with the certainty that betrayal is heading Nora’s way, infuses the book with (some slightly milder version of) dread. Nora’s describing Pride while acknowledging that she’s in a position from which society demands Humility, so you know that she’s going to pay.

I’ve read some reviews of this book that called it slow-moving which — I guess it is? At least, not a ton of events occur throughout the course of the book, and I am typically the first to complain about not enough events (cf my favorite show on TV right now being The Vampire Diaries on which ONE THOUSAND EVENTS occur every episode). But it didn’t feel slow, I think because Messud does such a good job of creating a sense of dread. You know Nora’s going to pay for the joy she’s experiencing; you just don’t know exactly how.

(I mean, I did. I read the end so I knew exactly how. But I still felt the dread.)

And now for my complaint. The symbolism of this book was, shall we say, a trifle on the nose. Nora’s artist friend, the mother/wife of the Shahid family, whose presence in Nora’s life lures Nora into believing there’s more out there for her, is called Sirena. Nora, meanwhile, has the same name of the protagonist of Ibsen’s The Doll House, an homage that I do not believe needed to be underlined by Nora’s artistic output being — yes! — dollhouses. There was just a lot of stuff like that, stuff that made me feel like Claire Messud did not trust her book to get its message across without slamming you in the face with its resonances.

There were also times at which I could have done without some of the commas. I love commas. You have to put a lot of clauses in a lot of commas before I will complain. Some of Messud’s writing was really lovely and precise:

But as she led me into their apartment, the thought that came unbidden was: Here is someone that I used to love. Or even: Here is someone who resembles, to a large degree but imperfectly, someone that I used to love.

I have felt that feeling before, and it was interesting to have it put into words, but at other times there were too many commas.

HOWEVER: I cannot emphasize enough that I like reading about angry women, and I really really appreciate what Claire Messud was doing in The Woman Upstairs. This is the same reason why I love Jane Eyre and the poetry of June Jordan. Women have a lot to be angry about.

13 thoughts on “Review: The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

  1. I read the NY Times review of this a few weeks ago and though, “Eh, not for me.” But now I’m curious about this underlying anger of which you speak. Sometimes it’s good to read something you think you won’t like and figure out why you don’t like it, yeah?

  2. I love the sound of this, it reminds me of Notes On A Scandal, in the sense that part of the relationships are based on fantasy and it’s all going to come crashing down at some point.

    I’m also adding to the chorus of voices wanting a list of books featuring angry women 🙂

  3. Aw, I’m in your tags! I feel strangely honoured about that 😛 Also, I’ll definitely read this. The other day I saw someone I respect say they would go nowhere near this book because they couldn’t stand stories that portrayed being single and childless as a horrible experience for a woman, and I have really complicated feelings about that. I mean, on the one hand, there’s definitely a shortage of media representations of happy, fulfilled women whose lives didn’t follow a traditional marriage-and-children path. They exist and we need to hear all about them! Yet on the other hand, wishing for those things and being unhappy that you don’t have them is also a valid experience, and I don’t want us to slip into erasing or guilt tripping women who feel that way. It’s kind of like what Katherine Angel says in this interview about being a strongly pro-choice woman for whom abortion was a really upsetting experience. The fact that your experience could be co-opted by anti-choicers (or people who believe that marriage and family are a woman’s “natural” role and they’re doomed to unhappiness if they deviate from it) shouldn’t make individual women feel that they have to oversimplify their own experience to themselves, or else they’ll be anti-feminists. These are complicated questions and I have no answers, but I’m definitely interested in exploring them.

    • The fact that your experience could be co-opted by anti-choicers (or people who believe that marriage and family are a woman’s “natural” role and they’re doomed to unhappiness if they deviate from it) shouldn’t make individual women feel that they have to oversimplify their own experience to themselves, or else they’ll be anti-feminists.


    • Oh, you know, I can see that objection, but I don’t think the person you respect would have the same objection if they read the book. Her dissatisfaction (and anger) is more related to her having not pursued her art, than anything else (marriage, family).

  4. I suppose The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (Europa) is a fascinating study of an angry woman.

    I personally am not a fan of this author based solely on not enjoying AT ALL The Emporer’s Children. Sadly, I don’t really remember why.

  5. I likewise decided not to read this book, based on a negative reaction to “The Emperor’s Children”. I was interested in this review to see if I was missing anything (I don’t think so). I can remember why I didn’t enjoy Emperor’s Children. I realise that the picture was meant to be of spoilt youth coming to their come-uppance but, call me naieve, I would like to find SOMEONE in a novel that I can like,empathise with, approve of. Interesting that someone compared “Notes On A Scandal,” because, that, in the same way, has no character that one can like or approve of. One of the reasons I read very few books by men is because THEIR negativity is so much more violent- murders, sexually predatory or downright rapist behaviour. Women, the gentler sex, I expect more empathy, but the modern trend is for unredeemed gloom. I go back to the Victorians for the more rounded view of life, eg George Eliot. But then again,when you know what the underlying trend of the society was (hypocrisy, sexually predatory behaviour, secret mistresses, syphilis) …oh dear I am rambling appallingly.

    The early 20th century is full of books by angry women,now largely forgotten. For really angry, look up “Storm Jameson”. largely out of print but widely available in Amazon Second hand store.

  6. I have been so interested in this book since I first heard about it, so I cannot tell you how delighted I am to read your review and finally get a proper impression of what the book is like. I can perfectly understand your complaint about the heavy-handed symbolism (dolls houses! Unsubtle!) but I’m also very intrigued too. One I am definitely going to read, I think. Thank you, dear Jenny, for a wonderfully clear and insightful review.

  7. I admit that I missed the Nora/Doll’s House reference. But I think I like it. Nora in A Doll’s House walks out on her family to pursue her own life. Nora in Messud’s book is a woman who has largely done that all along, making art she cannot or will not sell. I can see your point about commas, too, (Is that a little pun?) but I also think commas are just the thing for Nora’s character. They are precise, too precise, but perfect for someone who spends her creative time making tiny copies of the real world.

    Sirena, on the other hand, makes giant representations of fanstasy worlds.

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