The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud had been on my radar for a long time. So much so that when I decided to do some second-hand bookshop in Cardiff last year I knew I would buy a copy of the book if I found it. For those of you who kept recommending the book to me: Thank You.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs tells the story of Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged teacher who sees her conventional American class and life disrupted with the arrival of a new pupil from France. Nora describes herself in the first lines of the book as ‘a good girl’, and that is probably the description that best fits her until the following question is posted: What makes a good girl and why? In this first chapter we learn about her anger and her frustration with her life. If she has been a good daughter, a good colleague, and a good woman in general, why did this happen to her? Of course ‘this’ is the whole of the book. Messud is a master at describing psychological processes, and the novel focuses on Nora’s internal life and her evolution. But before we learn more about the year the incident that changed her life forever, she graces us with one of the most intense, truthful and brief takes on anger expressed by a female character in contemporary literature:

Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might.

This anger floods her story like a hemorrhage she cannot stop when she reconstructs what happened between her and the student’s family. Because I do not wish to spoil the novel to anyone, I will leave it here, and instead I will focus on why so many people have considered Nora a unlikable character. For me she was a heroine, but I am the one who takes Rebecca’s side on the Du Maurier classic. As a female character, Nora uses the narration in first person to vent her anger and her frustrations, and she directly links her situation to the fact that she is a woman and has been socialized to be quiet, silent, kind, show acceptance, and care for others. But above all, she highlights how society teaches women to repress negative feelings, and most importantly to not show the in public:

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.

Despite the importance of these feelings, Messud gives Nora a rich internal life, and her ambitions to be an artist also play a key role in the narrative. Even though she earns her living as a teacher, Nora has always wanted to be an artist but saw her will and determination crashed by society and her environment. Sadly this is a too common situation for many women even nowadays, and the fact that Messud chose to write about it may give help female readers give a second chance to the dreams of their youth. Nora’s self-rediscovery is one of the most beautiful and inspiring processes I have seen portrayed in literature, and it stands along with the library scene in Atonement, which two years later still lingers in my mind.

It has been over a month since I finished The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, but I fiercely miss Nora. Every day I look at my piles of books trying to find something that will make up for the loss, but I am afraid I will not find anything until Messud’s next book comes out this year. Even though reading The Woman Upstairs l may take a while due to the intensity of the story, Nora will remain with readers as one of the most complex, fierce, brave, inspiring and flawed characters in contemporary literature. For me this is probably the best book I have read this year so far.

11 thoughts on “The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

  1. I was really struck by this book as well – that virtuoso opening chapter, that anger, is very memorable. I think women are always labelled as unlikeable when they express sentiments which differentiate them from a doormat (to paraphrase Rebecca West).

    1. Yes, totally. I think that I could get that first chapter tattooed without a doubt. Have you seen that Messud has another book coming out soon? I hope she explores more unlikable female characters!

  2. I remember reading reviews of this when it was published, and had it in mind to look up – your piece increases that view. I’ve just finished reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s protofeminist novel Lolly Willowes, and am pondering a post on it; it seems to me to deal with similar passion with the theme of the suppressed soul of a disregarded woman.

    1. It’s good to hear that there are other women writers who have explored similar themes. However, don’t let that keep you from reading this book. It’s a fascinating piece.

    1. It seems impossible to find a woman who didn’t enjoy this book. I’ll keep an eye open for her next novel, as I’m sure it’ll be brilliant as well.

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