On the grandiose end of the spectrum of self-delusion, Hitler genuinely thought of himself as good. “Nobody is a villain to themselves,” says novelist Claire Messud. In a menacing evil voice she mocks how real “bad guys” don’t stand around rubbing their hands together declaring, “I am evil.” Instead they battle their own tunnel vision like her new protagonist Nora Eldridge. Although Nora is not remotely as deplorable as Hitler, readers will deeply struggle with liking her. And how much does that fact matter? “It generally seems like we’re in a moment of cultural lunacy where it’s repeatedly suggested that it’s problematic for characters not to be nice,” she explains. “As a reader I want characters to be true and I want to believe in the reality of the characters, which means they need to be complex and not entirely nice. If a character is drawn with human truth and compassion then we will feel for them.”
Messud’s latest work of fiction, The Woman Upstairs (which Kirkus starred), is pierced with feeling. As she devoured Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in high school, Messud’s understanding of a conventional narrator shifted. The Woman Upstairs is a female response to the rambling, irrational Underground Man. The story is told through Nora’s angry first-person narration that scratches at the eyes of the reader. We are left blinking between story lines to discern the truth from Nora’s disenfranchised bias. “A strong component of my connection to Nora is the matter of female acculturation—of being brought up to believe that you should be likable; that you should not be difficult; that making things go smoothly for the group or other people is always more important than your needs,” says Messud. “If you watch young children in a playground, assertiveness and competitiveness and ill-temperament are more discouraged in girls. Women are not given the same free reign in their personalities as men. I wanted to write about what it means to stop caring about what society thinks of you.”
From the beginning, Nora opens her wounds for the world to see because she has had a moment of realization of who she is—or rather the realization of how she is seen by others. An almost-middle-aged single woman, a well educated elementary school teacher, an adequate caregiver to her widowed father, Nora is the “woman upstairs.” She is not simply one of the spinsters or the “mad-women in the attic” types because she has a “modicum of self control.” She is a member of the silent sufferers club, festering with desperation: “With or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We are completely invisible.”
But why her mad-as-hell switch has been flipped is confounding. We get snippets of regret for Nora’s life that might have been—a neglected desire to be an artist, hauntings of her deceased mother who abandoned creative pursuits to care for her family—and we see that Nora’s unremarkable life is shaken up when the Shahids, a Lebanese-Italian family, come to reside in Cambridge, Mass. for the year and their young son is enrolled in Nora’s class. She is immediately transfixed by the boy with his vulnerable, otherworldly eyes and wants to stand up as his protector.
However, Nora is swept away even more by his mother, Sirena, an installation artist on the brink of international success, who takes Nora in under her billowy scarves as an artist-comrade. They agree to share a studio space, and Nora rekindles her art ambitions alongside the serious-minded Sirena as the women’s out-of-balance relationship grows more disconcerting. They each are jealous of the other—Nora of Sirena’s exotic life, and Sirena of Nora’s untethered freedom. Sirena dominates their conversations, unleashing her own existential discontent upon Nora’s eager ears. Nora becomes Sirena’s default assistant and babysitter. Meanwhile, amidst the renewed optimism for her life, Nora falls in love with Sirena, or the idea of Sirena, and simultaneously falls for Sirena’s husband. Nora literally steps into Sirena’s artwork entitled “Wonderland,” to escape the container of her upstairs status.
Each of the women uses the other, but their intentions remain ambiguous because Nora’s viewpoint is so tainted. “The big themes of the book are how strongly our interiority shapes our external reality and at what point that shaping tips over into unreliability,” says Messud. By the end a climax reveals a shocking truth about the dynamic between Sirena and Nora, and finally justifies Nora’s hammering rants. These concluding implications force Nora to come to terms with the reality that she has invented versus the reality that has unwittingly happened.
Such a brash move in the last few moments of a 270-page, low-action story would feel like cheating by a less attentive writer. Messud has known she wanted to be a writer since she was a child and realized that stories had tellers. Her parents gave her a typewriter for her sixth birthday and she never turned back; The Woman Upstairs is Messud’s fifth novel, a follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Emperor’s Children.
Even as she takes on bold literary feats like reconceiving the modern misfit archetypes of Beckett and Roth in The Woman Upstairs, her care lies in the details to create a most tangible universe for her characters. Art enthusiasts will be captivated by her colorful curating of artistic vision, such as Sirena’s photograph of an extraordinary subject: “Her skin was everywhere so mottled that you couldn’t tell foreground from background…Rose had a Jackson Pollock for a body, a human casing as marked as any canvas, so intense that she almost seemed dressed in her nudity.”
Messud writes out her novels by hand with a fine point pen on graph paper and this meticulous rendering of the elaborate inner-sanctity of Nora will challenge you to step up into her world, like her or not.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review, Fence, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere.