My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #3: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud’s latest novel is female, angry and disturbing.

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The narrator Nora is an American forty-something elementary school teacher with withered dreams of becoming an acclaimed artist. She is also a seriously angry woman embittered with the world for forcing her to give up her artistic aspirations; angry with her parents for needing her in their old age; and most of all angry with herself for desperately needing approval from everyone. She describes herself as the woman upstairs: ‘we’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting…’ (6).

       The Woman Upstairs is a powerful example of a text dealing with the subject of female anger. Perhaps the first novel I have read that has dealt with the issue so openly. It’s something within the spheres of both literature and society we are uncomfortable with. Women are meant to be likeable characters, doting mothers and daughters, without a sense of irritation or loss at how their life could/might have turned out if things were different…and this novel shows the anger hidden behind a ‘good’ woman. Female anger is often seen as hysterical, a sign of madness or PMS. The novel’s title and recurrent theme of the ‘woman upstairs’ echoes the discussions of female experience in Gilbert’s and Gubar’s ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic’ which is a text most English literature students will have studied time and time again and Messud definitely draws from this. Messud’s writing definitely draws from feminist discussions of women’s experience under patriarchy, but is does not aim to provide answers. It never pins female experience to anything particular, rather emphasising its fluidity which is simultaneously liberating and terrifying.

Her feelings of anger at life are exacerbated by the Shahids. Reza Shahid, a new boy from Paris, moves into her elementary school class and thus starts a friendship between her, Reza and his parents that changes her perspective on life- making her feel that the life she wants is in reach- however ultimately the family/her imagination disappoint her wishes. The novel is cyclical starting with Nora after the betrayal of the Shahids (don’t worry I won’t give any spoilers); a harsh awakening to reality and her own mediocrity that leads to her uncontrollable rage and then a recap of her life before and during the betrayal.

Messud’s writing is unrestrained and raw. Dappled with moments of lucid awareness and self-criticism portraying gaps in Nora’s reality and fiction. Is she as ordinary as she imagines or does she just ignore her own virtues? You could argue the power of the Shahids over Nora is their ability to represent her ideal -exotic, wealthy and deeply comfortable with their identities. Neither Nora nor Messud ever make it clear whether the Shahids are really as fantastic as they appear, or simply an illusion fabricated by Nora’s suppressed self.  I love that these questions are raised and never answered. There is an active engagement between the reader, Nora and the author. Something that most writers cannot achieve.

This novel definitely fits my vague impression of contemporary literature. It really shows the complexities of female experience and the uncertainty of contemporary society that both puzzles and entices the reader to think. 

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