The Emperor’s Children is about three friends, all of whom had attended Brown University. Now living in New York City, all three are about to enter their thirties without having made their mark on the world, something they felt, with their Ivy League educations, they were destined to do. The action begins in the spring of 2001. The characters experience the shock of nine eleven, yet the trauma does not, for the most part, materially alter their lives.
I thought Claire Messud told this story masterfully. The writing was wonderful, enlivened both by effortless wit and her deep empathy for her characters. So when I heard that she had a new novel coming out, I was filled with happy anticipation.
Here’s how The Woman Upstairs begins:
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
The narrator, one Nora Eldridge, goes on to spew out copious amounts of rage, liberally laced with profanity. She obviously doesn’t give a hoot regarding whom she offends or scandalizes. (And trust me, she wouldn’t have said “hoot.”)
Now some might call this a powerful, even a bravura performance. As for me, I wanted to throw the book across the room. Or at least, close it, sigh deeply, and move on to something else. (It is, after all, a library book, so one doesn’t want to damage the merchandise.) After all, why should I care about this irritating woman and her seemingly endless list of grievances?
Nora Eldridge is what the French used to term (and possible still do) “une femme d’un certain age.” In her early forties, childless and never married, she’s by profession an elementary school teacher (irony of ironies). By aspiration, however, she is an artist. One of her students is an attractive little boy named Reza Shahid. When Reza’s mother Sirena comes in for a conference, she and Nora discover that they have much in common. Sirena is also an artist. She’s Italian; her husband Skandar is Lebanese. They have planned a one year stay in Boston. As the days progress, Nora becomes closer and more intensely involved in the lives of all three members of the Shahid family.
Now it does not take predictive genius to intuit that this tangle of relationships will probably culminate in some kind of crisis. What exactly will happen, though, the reader is left to guess. The problem is, has the reader been made to care enough that this speculation is worth entering upon? I’m on the fence about this question; in fact, I’m on the fence about the entire book. The kind of novel I most enjoy is one in which events seem to unfold naturally and spontaneously and yet with a certain inevitability. You know the kind of thing I mean – you’re halfway through the book before you take stock of how much you’ve actually read. But with The Woman Upstairs, I was aware of the plot machinery being manipulated. It’s as if the author was thinking, Now what can I cause to happen in Nora’s life that will illuminate her character and at the same time drive the plot forward? Oh I know: I’ll have her meet this family: an appealing young boy, an artist mother, an attractive, slightly mysterious father – and I’ll add a combustible element or two and see what happens.
In other words, the set-up struck me as contrived. And yet….
There’s some powerful writing in this novel. At one point, Nora is fighting her way through what is for her, as for so many unhappy people, the worst time of the year. She has spent it with her aging aunt and father; the talk has been mostly about friends and acquaintances with serious and in some cases terminal illnesses, and who was taking care of whom.
I was, by then, burning, not sleeping. Who would do the same for me, in my dotage? Who would be my good girl?….No: I derived a certain bitter thrill thinking that I’d manage to the end on my own, a thrill of denial and austerity, a thrill not unlike a dieter’s pleasure at her gnawing stomach. I will be continent. I will continue. I will not spill into the lives of others, greedily sucking and wanting and needing. I will not, I will ask nothing, of anyone; I’ll just burn, from the inside out, self-immolating like those monks doused in gasoline. Spontaneous combustion, almost. Almost.
She ends this tirade by hurling profanity at Christmas.
At times, one is grateful for the Shahid complication. Otherwise, this novel would be one long rant. But more than that: it would be one long howl of pain. Beneath all the anger, there is clearly a woman who is being driven around the bend by an almost paralyzing loneliness. Allusions to T.S. Eliot, the early twentieth century’s great poet of anxiety and dread, appear frequently. When Nora firs meets Sirena, she is powerfully struck by the sensation of encountering a kindred spirit:
It was the strangest feeling, of relief and alarm at the same time. Like seeing a ghost. like seeing a ghost or having an epiphany–who is he who walks always beside you?–a feeling that you have no choice but to trust completely.
Nora needs desperately to make just such a connection. She’d spent years nursing her mother through her final illness, and as a result, felt bereft. She struggles to articulate the experience, and its aftermath, so Sirena will understand:
And I told her about how I used to paint big messy pictures, but how when my mother was sick, and for all the years she was dying, one small capacity at a time, I stopped being able to paint, stopped being able to make any big gestures at all, and turned instead to little things, to rooms the size of show boxes, Joseph Cornell-scaled dioramas, as if these, at least, could not be taken from me–these are the fragments I have shored against my ruin.
As I was reading The Woman Upstairs, I kept pausing to analyze my feelings about Nora. Did I pity her? Admire her? Something in between? At times she annoyed me; at other times she aroused feelings of compassion. Interestingly, in a recent interview with Claire Messud in Publishers Weekly, the interview asks if she, Messud, would want to be friends with a woman like Nora Eldridge , whose outlook on life is “almost unbearably grim.” Messud responds with a tirade of her own:
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’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.
Whether you can enjoy a novel whose central character is not very sympathetic is a question worth pondering. Indeed, I have pondered it, along with other readers, at various book club discussions. And the fact is, The Woman Upstairs would make a terrific book club selection. By the second chapter, I was dying to talk to someone about it; the feeling only intensified as I read on.
One more comment about this novel. Unlike many works of contemporary fiction – including crime fiction – this novel has a terrific ending. You could say that in a matter of moments, the Woman Upstairs attains something that she’s been striving for all along: a purpose driven life. Is there an irony in how this comes about? I’m not sure. It’s one of the many things I need to discuss with you, after you’ve read the book.