A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
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 so continues the articulate rage of Nora, our Woman Upstairs. Those Upstairs women are those who outwardly seem lovely and presentable, with a nod and a smile for everyone, but inside are unfulfilled and angry. Take Nora: well-loved elementary school teacher, dutiful daughter, living unintrusively alone on the third floor of her apartment building. But really, she is – or at least should have been – an artist; a creator of Great Work:
“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.”
One day, a new boy, Reza, starts in her class, and she is immediately smitten with him. His beauty, his charm, his intelligence, all of it. She starts to feel as if Reza is her own child, so is personally hurt when he is subjected to racist bullying. His mother is called to the school, and a meeting of the minds seems to occur: Sirena is an artist, like Nora should have been. They strike up a friendship, and rent a studio together, Nora’s work on dioramas of famous woman writers’ living spaces being renewed. What follows is an intense story of Nora falling in love – or at least infatuation – with each member of the family: Reza, Sirena, and Skandar, a Lebanese academic whose position at Harvard is the reason for the family to have moved to the area temporarily.
This non-permanence is, of course, key. This all must end, and Nora must eventually come to realise that the family do not perhaps feel about her as she does about them. What then? She has laid herself open to them, in various ways. What happens to the Woman Upstairs in the wake of it all?
I feel conflicted about this book. On the one hand, the rage blasts from the page, testament to the sheer power of Messud’s skill as a writer. There were passages, particularly the descriptive sections, that absolutely blew me away with their combination of simplicity and force. It’s also good, I think, to see the unapologetic anger of a woman laid bare, something which is still surprisingly rare. In so many ways, The Woman Upstairs is a feminist rallying cry to women who have quietly accepted their lot in life.
Yet, I was somewhat disappointed in the actual story. An excellent beginning and an excellent end, yes, but the middle felt slightly directionless; even baggy. I felt at times that Messud could have gone further, yet at the same time lost some of the meandering. The tension that built up swiftly in the last part could, perhaps, have been more evenly distributed.
So, there was some weakness of plot, and perhaps too some weakness in the less central characters. I would have liked to see Nora’s relationship with her father and aunt more fully explored, given her repeated, furious insistance that she is a good daughter.
But regardless of that, Messud’s abilities are undeniable, and I would certainly like to read more by her. I also applaud her reaction to a recent interviewer who complained that she wouldn’t like to be Nora’s friend:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
Nora is most definitely alive, no one can deny that. The Woman Upstairs is an exquisite rant. Not a flawless one, but a rant nonetheless. And I like rants, especially articulate ones like this.
Virago, 320 pages, hardback/ebook, £14.99, ISBN 9781844087310