Out of the Attic: Making Friends With 'The Woman Upstairs'

It is possible that I was predisposed to fall in love with The Woman Upstairs, the long-awaited new novel by Claire Messud.

It is true, I loved her last book, 2006's The Emperor's Children, probably the first actually good novel about 9/11. (Do not pass go, do not pick up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, just go read it if you haven't already done so.) It's also true that I am almost the same age and equally as unmarried as her protagonist, Nora Eldridge (although we don't otherwise have much in common).

But really, when it comes down to it, I don't think my predisposition matters all that much: The Woman Upstairs is just that good. If it's not on scads of top 10 lists at the year's end, it won't be because it doesn't deserve it.

The Woman Upstairs starts aggressively: "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

"I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl, I'm a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, career girl, and I never stole anybody's boyfriend, and I put up with my parents' shit and my brother's shit, and I'm not a girl anyway, I'm over forty f--king years old. … It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist' on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend' instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is F--K YOU ALL.

"Don't all women feel the same?"

It's a bold beginning. Because of course not all women do feel the same. And, as you discover over the course of the novel, Nora is a very unreliable narrator. Is she really a good daughter? A good friend? It's certainly questionable.

The Woman Upstairs is told in flashbacks. Elementary-school teacher Nora, now 42, recalls a period of months five years earlier when she fell under the spell of a glamorous, globe-trotting couple, Sirena and Skandar Shahid, and their son, Reza. Skandar is a visiting professor at Harvard, and Sirena is an artist beginning work on a new installation piece that is a refraction of Alice's Wonderland.

Nora, a thwarted artist herself, agrees to share a studio with Sirena, and they quickly become friends. She also starts babysitting on a regular basis for 8-year-old Reza, whom she also teaches. On the nights when she babysits, Skandar walks her home, and their conversations quickly turn intense.

If Messud were an obvious writer, this novel would be about a single woman betraying her married best friend via an affair. But Messud isn't obvious. Nora is genuinely in love with all three Shahids. I've seen some reviewers complain that Nora is too creepy, but her obsession, overwrought as it may be, rings true to me. She's a desperately lonely person, clinging on the littlest shreds of human kindness and imbuing them with a much greater significance than they possess. It's not creepy, it's bitterly sad.

But The Woman Upstairs is not really about a love triangle (or quadrangle)—it's not really a love story at all. Instead, much like Sheila Heti's 2012 fictional memoir How Should a Person Be?, the novel is an examination of what it means to be both a woman and an artist.

Nora's art—small, precise dioramas based on the lives of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, painter Alice Neel, and Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick—is the opposite of Sirena's installations of fairy-tale worlds like Avalon, Oz, and the Forest of Arden. The symbolism couldn't be more obvious, but that's kind of the point. I mean, the protagonist is named Nora, as in the protagonist of Ibsen's A Doll's House, and the title The Woman Upstairs is a clear nod to the feminist literary-theory classic The Madwoman in the Attic.

That's not to say all these literary Easter eggs make the novel a heavy-handed allegory, because they don't. I can't remember the last time I felt as entranced by a work of prose—and there really is no other word for it besides entranced. Messud's sentences reel you in and cast a spell. I didn't want the book to end.

If there is a flaw in The Woman Upstairs, it's the revelation of the moment that has prompted Nora's rage. The betrayal, such as it is, is pretty brutal and humiliating, but it comes so very close to the end of the book—just a few pages away—that it doesn't really give the reader enough time to process what has just happened. Still, this is a minor quibble.

In a recent interview in Publishers Weekly, a reporter asked Messud, "I wouldn't want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim." Messud replied testily, "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? ... 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."

I might not want to be friends with Nora, but I loved spending time with her. And nothing about The Woman Upstairs is grim. It's a beautiful work from a masterful author who isn't scared to be fearless.