A quick break from blog posts about my book "Isolde 1939" to review the latest novel by Claire Messud, "The Woman Upstairs." The book is narrated by Nora, a 42-year-old schoolteacher in Cambridge, MA whose plans to become an artist fell by the wayside. She never married, doesn't have children and refers to herself as "the woman upstairs", although she doesn't fit the spinster stereotype (that would be another teacher in her school). Nora develops an infatuation for the parents of a boy she teaches: a couple in town for only one year with the husband a visiting scholar at Harvard and the wife an artist, like Nora herself, except that the wife is actually making a career out of it.
The narrator's voice is very strong - one really feels that Nora is speaking to us. Messud's writing style (with very long sentences interspersed with "--" so that the narrator can go on and on) is very well-suited for this choice of point of view, both when 42-year-old Nora expresses her anger after realizing she's been betrayed and also when she recounts the events that happened when she was 37. It is the sort of voice that keeps pulling you into the novel and doesn't let go of you until you reach the last page.
Without giving too much away, I'll say that Nora is ultimately used and discarded by someone she admired, and because she doesn't come across as a very reliable narrator, not only might she have been used from the start by a selfish, self-centered person, but an important moment with another protagonist might turn out to have only been a small gesture - what the two did is never spelled out, and since Nora explains everything else in detail, I suspect nothing happened at all beyond perhaps a short embrace. But that's my interpretation.
I did read the last few pages in the bookstore before buying it, and I felt that knowing the ending did help me enjoy the book, because I knew it was going to end in the manner that most resonated with me.
The story struck a chord in me because I have enough experience in the world of education to see how something like that could happen - how someone might put her dreams on the backburner while she focuses on earning a paycheck, turn down marriage proposals to remain true to herself and then get caught in the empty hecticness of her daily work, while someone else (a parent in the book's case, but you could imagine other scenarios) tries to take advantage of her - probably thinking that she must be a pitiful individual, if she's childless and single well into her late 30s - while she desperately tries to make her dream of art happen. Messud has a fine eye for what slowly pushes someone to the brink. We all know that lives don't always turn out the way teenagers expected them to when they were growing up, but Messud really shows us the state of mind of someone coming to terms with that, and still young enough to do something about it.
Nora is in fact far from pitiful. When I read about her art and about the other woman's, I found that hers came across as far more original and innovative - it reminded me of the movie The Big Picture, where the character played by Romain Duris (a lawyer in crisis who enjoys photography as a hobby) kills the photojournalist neighbor who was sleeping with his wife and takes his identity. Duris ends up being far more talented as a photographer than his neighbor, although success is fleeting precisely because of what he has done. But fear not: Messud's novel is psychological in nature. It recounts Nora's emotional journey and in spite of angry Nora's ominous threats, there is no violence in it whatsoever.
47-year-old Messud, who has ties to France, Canada and the United States, came to national prominence in 2006 with her novel "The Emperor's Children", set in New York City in the months preceding, as well as in the days immediately following, September 11, 2001. While I enjoyed the book, with its richly textured descriptions and its translation into English of long-winded French sentences that reminded me of home (I'm French), Messud received a lot of flak for her writing style and, most importantly, her use of September 11 as a key plot device in a book focusing on rather shallow people.
Much has been made of that fact that Messud was quite obscure before the publication of "The Emperor's Children", having published with small press books such as a group of novellas - the ultimate sign of a writer indifferent to commercial success, if there ever was one. When I read the description of "The Woman Upstairs" on Amazon.com, I had serious misgivings about buying the book. In particular, an early description of the novel, which has now been edited, mentioned that the young boy that enters the life of the narrator is attacked in the schoolyard by bullies who call him a "terrorist". And I remember reading that word and shaking my head. I knew Messud most likely hadn't taken part in writing the description, but she already aroused very strong negative feelings for her use of September 11, was it really necessary for her to invoke the t-word? Thankfully, this description has now been edited, and the new one gives a better idea of what the book is about.
I do feel that plot summaries don't do the book justice. Messud masterfully shows us the emotional world of Nora and attempting to summarize it by glib sentences such as "she falls in love with all three of them, the father, the mother and the child" (variants of which I have read) are enormously reductive. The novel works. It simply does.
The review in the New York Times by Michiko Kakutani was on the cold side of lukewarm, with words such as "incongruous mashup of a very self-consciously literary novel (invoking the likes of Chekhov) and one of those psychological horror films... in which someone, ominously, is not who she appears to be." Frankly, with all respect to Kakutani, referring here to a psychological horror film is pure nonsense. Nora's fascination for the family, especially the mother-artist, is very PG-13. I'm disappointed that the famous NYT critic didn't identify Nora's (successful for a time) attempts to reconnect with her passion as an artist as her main drive, and as her redeeming feature that saves her from turning into a cardboard character from those horror films Kakutani refers to. (No stalking, no breaking-into-home, no authorized reading of emails... She looks at the woman's art in her part of the studio they share and wishes, in an admiring way, that she had her family. When she realizes she's been used she cuts the family out of her life. That's the horror? Please.) It's a pity Kakutani didn't realize that the story isn't as far-fetched, and as much a transparent commercial ploy, as what she seems to believe. A great book.