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There’s an edgy, somewhat dark lyricism to Claire Messud’s writing that has captivated me since I reviewed The Hunters more than a decade ago for the Baltimore Sun. Messud is an intellectual storyteller, by which I mean she tells a story well and engagingly, but with intellectual subtext galore, so you get a history lesson, a lesson in real politik, a lesson in literature, a lesson in art and art history. Messud knows things and she both wants you to know she knows them and also wants her characters to impart them. That she does so with such seamlessness and with none of the smug, self-congratulatory lecturing/hectoring of some writers (you know who you are), makes her writing all the more engaging. One comes away from a Messud novel as one does from a novel by Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy or Margaret Atwood–knowing more, but not having been preached at or chided for not having known already. In her new novel, The Woman Upstairs, Messud takes the heart of a woman whose heart has been long-dormant, opens it up, layer by pumping layer, and by novel’s end, sets that heart on fire. Messud takes us on that journey via art and politics: it’s a heady mix.
Messud’s protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is a classically unreliable first-person narrator in the tradition of Truman Capote (sans the humor) and Mary Gordon (like in the spot-on Final Payments). A third-grade teacher and frustrated (some would say failed) artist of complex searingly feminist dioramas, she’s a quelled seeker. At 37 when the novel opens just before the 2004 election, she sees herself as the eponymous character in Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of the song, Lucy Jordan. Lost to love and herself, aching to be filled by something she is unable to access. Mid-way through the novel she says she is a ravenous wolf, who wants to eat up the world. Yet she is incapable of taking a bite.
Nora is The Woman Upstairs–the unconnected woman who, as Messud writes late in the novel, is never first to be called. She’s not quite pretty or smart or funny or sexy enough to be memorable. And yet she is pretty and smart and funny and sexy. Just not enough.
The Woman Upstairs is the story of Nora falling deeply, life-alteringly, madly, insanely in love with Sirena Shahid, an Italian artist living in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England) for a year away from her home in Paris while her Lebanese husband, Skandar, an expert in the ethics of history, is on fellowship at Harvard. The couple has a son, Reza, a student in Nora’s class, which is how she comes to meet Sirena.
Nora actually falls in love with all three of the Shahids: Reza, the child she longs to have, with his beautiful curly black hair, long-lashed eyes and faltering grasp of English; Skandar, with his bruising Beirut childhood of bombings and genocide; and the Anna Magnani-like Sirena, whose allure goes to the core of Nora’s attenuated, on-hold being and makes her think she can have everything–Sirena herself, her own career as an artist, a real life.
Before she met the Shahids, Nora’s great love had been her mother, Joy, who died a slow and horrible death from ALS. Nora’s view of her mother was that she was larger than life, yet had been stifled irreparably by a stultifying existence as wife, mother and homemaker. Nora remembers a vivid scene in a market when she’s a child where her mother orders her to never, ever be dependent on a man for anything.
And Nora has heeded her mother’s wishes. She’s eschewed marriage–returning an engagement ring the day after accepting it. She’s been a dutiful daughter, seeing her mother through the throes of her illness and caring for her widowed father. She’s virtually estranged from her brother who lives in Arizona, but occasionally visits her mother’s sister, Aunt Baby, a deeply religious Catholic “spinster,” of whom she wants to ask how–how does she live this life so wholly alone?
Nora’s best friend and confidant is Didi, a lesbian who came to her lesbianism late, after a failed marriage to a man, but who has embraced it with the alacrity of the newly converted. Didi is married to Esther, whom Nora doesn’t like, and they have an adopted daughter, Lili, whom Nora covets.
It’s an ugly scene at the otherwise perfect Appleton school that sends Sirena to Nora. Reza is attacked on the playground by some other boys who taunt him with pre-9/11 terrorist comments.
The interaction between mother and teacher leads to a meeting which leads to Nora’s blurting revelation that she, too, is an artist (she hasn’t bothered to Google Sirena, so doesn’t know that Sirena’s installation pieces have garnered the kind of critical acclaim Nora could only dream of). As it happens, Sirena has taken a studio space in a grungier part of Somerville and wants to know if Nora would like to share the space. Nora already has a second bedroom in her apartment which she uses as a studio, and her work is tiny: complex diorama miniatures of the lives of women artists and writers. When she meets Sirena, she is just completing Emily Dickinson and is moving on to Virginia Woolf and the painter Alice Neel.
The studio space leads Nora quite literally down the rabbit hole, as Sirena’s new installation, to debut in Paris the next June, is titled “Wonderland,” and incorporates Alice’s adventures with the viewers’ engagement in the work.
We watch, rapt, as Nora falls for Sirena. We understand it. Sirena is everything Nora is not and has everything Nora wants. Nora has always expected to be an artist, but art school led her elsewhere. Nora has always seen herself with more than one child, but no husband has left her childless and she seems unable to think of adopting like Didi and Esther, or inseminating. She’s in a trap and Sirena has sprung the release.
We ache for Nora. We want her to be happy. But we’ve seen these tales before: we know it can’t end well for her.
Messud knows also, but even as we barrel toward the cataclysmic ending, even though we have been told early on by Nora that she could have killed the Shahids, we still are not prepared for the trajectory Messud takes us on and how she takes us there.
Nora goes back and forth in places between and among the objects of her love. Sirena has pulled her deeply into the lives of the Shahids, so she is there, always, on their periphery. She’s in their house, in the studio. Skandar walks her the mile or so from their place to hers after dinners or evenings caring for Reza. He talks to her about Beirut, about growing up in Paris instead of Lebanon or instead of the U.S., like many of his compatriots. They talk about history and politics–he mostly talking, she mostly listening.
Nora’s father wants more for her than she has–she can’t explain to him how much the Shahids are in her life. But we know. She describes how Sirena is her Muse: “I had half a mind to skip out of school, to leave them all behind, and go and find her….she was my Muse, my alcoholic’s bourbon on the rocks: irresistible.”
Oh Nora….because only ten pages later, she says it straight out, “I was in love with Sirena.” And in another ten, as Sirena is describing the details of her project, something she has shared with no one, to Nora in their studio, there is this: “She put her hand on me of course…” and as Sirena asks Nora questions about the work, Nora thinks, “How to answer when mostly I was feeling the hand? And wondering, as I always did, what I felt about the hand?” and then a few pages later we have this: “And I barely heard her, because I felt her hand upon my hand, all through my body. I felt her skin. I really felt it.”
The Woman Upstairs is both revelatory and heartbreaking. Or perhaps it is heartbreakingly revelatory. It’s a tale of modern-day spinsterhood. We’re not supposed to say these words anymore: spinster, bachelor. They are freighted, politically incorrect. We’ve come to view these words suspiciously–especially spinster–as stand-ins for heteronormative declamations of people who are actually queer. Spinster might be lesbian, but even if it isn’t, it has to be anti-feminist. Doesn’t it?
Yet is the more euphemistic woman upstairs any less weighted? And doesn’t the reality of women full of a Jean Rhys, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson kind of longing still pertain? What do we do with these women? Jettison them out of society as well as literature? Or do we do as Messud has here: explicate their lives, attend to them, cherish them by giving them their own first-person voice, rather than third-person pity?
The Woman Upstairs is a fully realized story of bisexual passion–something we don’t see much of, in reality. Nora isn’t a lesbian. Didi and Esther tell her that flat-out when she comes to them to reveal her love for Sirena which has hit her suddenly, magically, full-on, like a Mack truck in an intersection of her life. And yet the deepest love of her life is irretrievably, irrevocably Sirena, not Skandar. He is an appendage of her, as is Reza. It is Sirena who is all for Nora, and on levels she could never have imagined.
The Woman Upstairs is a novel of our times–at once lyrical and literary, feminist and female, colloquial and deeply intellectual. Messud is masterful in her storytelling and we come away with Nora’s heart held both in our own and trodden on beneath our feet.
The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud
Hardcover, 9780307596901, 260 pp.