'The Woman Upstairs' Is Making Her Case — But Is It Art?

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Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs” may be the first pageturner I’ve read where I wasn’t sure why I was turning the pages. That, in itself, is testament to the quality of her prose though perhaps not to the cohesiveness of the new book by the author of the acclaimed “The Emperor’s Children.”

Acclaim or not, I like the messiness of the new book more than the neatness of the earlier novel. Variations in tone are more interesting than getting stuck in a groove.

“The Woman Upstairs” starts off with our heroine-of-sorts, Nora, a 42-year-old Cambridge elementary school teacher, going on a “Notes from Underground” rant about her anger at her place in the universe: “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 then ends her introductory notes with the ominous: “I want to make my nothingness count. Don’t think it’s impossible.”

"The Woman Upstairs" cover. (Courtesy, Knopf)
"The Woman Upstairs" cover. (Courtesy, Knopf)

It’s a little disappointing, then, when Chapter 1 takes us from Dostoevsky to docility – the everyday Canterbrigian comings and goings of a world that local readers, in particular, might know a little too well. Not that it isn’t fun to read about Zaftigs and Burdick’s and the BU Bridge, but the hope is that Messud will take us someplace different.

And she does. Into a ménage a quatre, not with a string of lovers, but with a family, the Shahids – a Lebanese professor; his Italian wife, an artist; and their son, Reza, whom she’s teaching. Her swoon over Reza’s exotic-ness is innocent (we assume) and understandable enough. Skandar, the professor, gives a sexual potential to the proceedings and the attraction to Sirena has a sensual nature to it as well, though Nora keeps repeating that the love is nonsexual. (“‘Longing’ is a better word than ‘desire.’”)

She’s really in love with the family, and is equally insistent that it’s not as a surrogate for her own loneliness. That this love that does not even know its name is never fully spelled gives the book an air of mystery that Messud develops with stylish prose that, while it could use more poetry in its palette, still has an artful resonance from page to page.

Claire Messud. (Lisa Cohen)
Claire Messud. (Lisa Cohen)

Nora and Sirena soon rent a studio together, in which Nora can not only bask in Sirena’s glow, but give herself one last chance to make it real as the “Great Artist” she once felt destined to be rather than as “The Woman Upstairs” – a Lucy Jordan dismissed by a high-achieving world. And, for that matter, dismissed by her own sense of self.

Messud isn’t interested in attacking that dismissive world but in getting into the heart and soul of a woman who wants to make herself count as something more than a teacher who can at best touch, not change, other lives. (And vice versa.) To her credit Messud keeps the action moving forward and though very little happens plotwise, beyond Sirena’s development of her Wonderland art project, there’s rarely a dull moment.

I do wish that her editor had set a stricter quota on how many times she resurfaces her reference points – the woman upstairs, Lucy Jordan, life as a fun house, watching “Law & Order” – and that Messud had instead spent more time developing her ideas about the ruthlessness of art. But perhaps less turns out to be more in the end.

Is Nora utltimately as trapped as her “mad housewife” mother? Messud is too good a writer to settle for such bleak chic. Watching her write Nora out of that fate is half the fun of “The Woman Upstairs,” which if not a great book about our times is quite a good book about one person’s attempt to fit into those times.

Click here to read an excerpt from the introductory chapter.

This program aired on May 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.




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