The Woman Upstairs begins and ends with anger. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” And then “I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough–finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me–before I die to fucking well live.”
Nora Eldridge is a third-grade teacher. The kids’ favorite third-grade teacher. She’s an artist. She was doing very well in business and stopped to become a teacher. She cared for her dying mother and now cares for her widowed aging father and elderly aunt. She has a strained relationship with her brother, who is married with a child and who is too busy doing important life things to be bothered with the obligations that fall upon Nora. Nora wanted to be an artist, but her mother convinced her to do something practical so she could support herself and be independent. She pushed Nora not to repeat her own mistakes. She made art something impractical, unworthy. Nora loved her deeply. “I loved being her child. I remember looking at her and thinking she was the most beautiful thing in the world.” Then she had to watch her die by creeping steps from MS.
Nora refers to herself as the woman upstairs, the spinster about whom people don’t think much, and when they do it’s uncharitable. In other ways she is the woman upstairs. She lives in her own head, sometimes too much. She thinks and thinks, but fears doing. Until she meets the Shahids, who are in Cambridge for a year for Mr. Shahid to finish a book project. Reza becomes a student in her class whom she loves and protects. Sirena is an artist who asks her to split a studio and whose energy pushes Nora to begin creating again and to whose own work Nora contributes.
Sirena and Nora collaborate to create Sirena’s vision of Wonderland, which is absolutely appropriate for Messud’s purposes, as Nora’s vision of reality is as distorted and razor sharp by turns as the world into which Alice falls. The reality of perception recurs throughout the novel. Nora sees her mother as having been trapped by marriage and motherhood, but realizes after talking with her father that he saw her mother as in charge of their lives–where they lived, when they had children and how many. Nora worries all the time about how others see her–a failed artist who teaches because she can’t make art, a failed woman who teaches children because she does not have her own. Fail, fail, fail echoes through Nora’s fears of others’ perceptions. Fear stops Nora from acting. When she finally lets go of fear she is pretending to be someone else. When she becomes famous it is without her permission and without her identity.
Nora is middle-aged. She fears becoming Lucy Jordan from the Marianne Faithfull song. “The age of thirty-seven–the first of my Reza years–is a time of reckoning, the time at which you have to acknowledge once and for all 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. Then there’s a period of accommodation before you are formally and officially old.” But even when she begins creating, it’s miniature dioramas of the rooms of famous women artists, women trapped in tiny rooms destined to be watched by Nora and anyone who sees Nora’s art. They reminded me of butterflies pinned to fabric and labelled in a shallow box fronted with glass.
Nora longs. Her longing becomes the filling between the anger that composes the start and end of the novel. “Longing’ is a better word than ‘desire’: it carries its qualities of reaching but not attaing, of yearning, of a physical pull that is intense and yet melancholy, always already a little sorrowful, self-knowing, in some wise passionate and in some measure resigned. Desire suggests a burning, fervid, unreflective, something that wants, above all, satisfaction.” To some extent, Nora replaces longing with anger and both perpetuate her focus on what is outside herself. She longs for something she does not have. She is angry at some external entity or force. She still carries her mother’s anger, or the anger she perceives her mother as having. The woman who lives too much in her head still, as the novel closes, has not made peace with herself and her relationship to the world. She is angry enough to live well, but she does not have a road map for what that means or how to go about it. She is going to live well to show others, not to live well for herself. And that was disappointing.
I am middle-aged. I worry too much about what others think. I live too much in my head. I often do not act because I fear failure. I got Nora Eldridge for all of these reasons. I suspect many people will/do. Messud’s writing was beautiful at the sentence, chapter, and novel levels. Her characters were finely drawn. If only she had left me with more hope. Nora put a tiny golden Joy in each of her miniature creations. I’m still looking for it in Messud’s novel.