The Argument: Bestselling novelist Claire Messud returns with The Woman Upstairs, a book that dares to make art out of middle age
I’m over 40, yet much of my pop culture consumption of late has concerned precocious young people. I am surrounded by half-formed stragglers like Sheila Heti and Lena Dunham—female versions of the man-child, forever coming of age. Where are the women in the age of Girls? Ask any actress: there’s not much work to be had in the void between Katniss and the Dowager Countess. This youth-obsessed culture elides not just characters of a certain age, but many an older audience member looking for her reflection in the art she absorbs.
So almost without knowing it, I was hungry for Nora Eldridge, the hero of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. The title names an archetype: the nice, unmarried middle-aged lady on the third floor who smiles in the lobby and is quickly forgotten. Nora is a caring schoolteacher seemingly content to look after her ailing father, her dreams of living the life of an artist subsumed by the act of simply living a life. Bitterly funny and self-aware, she claims to be having a “Lucy Jordan moment,” name-checking the 1979 Marianne Faithfull song with the elegiac chorus: “At the age of 37 she realized she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.”
Messud has witnessed the clichéd crises that unfurl at mid-life. “There is this moment where you realize: I thought there would be time for everything, but maybe not,” she says. “That spurs creativity in people who have been idling for a long time. For others, it spurs extramarital affairs.” She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, the New Yorker literary critic and novelist James Wood, and their two children. For a long time, Messud was stuck in the ranks of the literary mid-listers—her first three books were well-reviewed but not so well-read. Then, in 2006, the year she turned 40, her novel The Emperor’s Children became a global bestseller. The book, an account of three striving young friends caught in the heady naïveté of pre-9/11 New York, earned a Man Booker Prize nomination and was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times.
My dog-eared copy was passed to me by a friend who had read it in her book club. After that, it kept coming up in conversation, occupying the “Did you read…?” slot that one lucky novel wins every year. The Emperor’s Children didn’t feel like homework. (I’ll get to you eventually, Wolf Hall.) It was an irresistible, brainy soap opera, and one of the first novels of the period to take on the privileged swathe of liberal America that was oblivious to the churning forces of the wider world.
In the wake of the novel’s success, Messud returned to the graph paper and pen that she uses to compose all her books, and began a new one about the death of a difficult patriarch. But something strange happened. Her father, who was retired and splitting his time between Connecticut and Napanee, Ontario, was battling poor health. Whenever Messud worked on the new novel, he would get sicker. When she put it aside, he would get better. Sensing some unnerving magical thinking at play, she abandoned the project. Her father died of esophageal cancer in 2010, and last October, her mother died, too, of a degenerative neurological disease. The reign of sadness continued when her aunt passed away at Christmas. “It has been a long season of death,” she says.
It seems right, then, that Messud’s follow-up to The Emperor’s Children grasps furiously at life and punches back at encroaching age. In The Woman Upstairs, she abandons the polyphonic narration of the previous novel for a first-person carpe diem tirade and prose that is leaner and meaner.
Nora’s middle-aged somnambulance is broken with the arrival of the Shahids, a worldly family of three who come to town via Lebanon and Europe. Over the course of one school year, her obsession shifts between the beautiful eight-year-old Reza, her student, and Skandra, his brooding Harvard professor father, but fixes most intently on Sirena, who is a wife, mother and artist—three paths not taken by the Woman Upstairs. Nora comes to share a studio with Sirena, where she works on modest dioramas of female artists’ bedrooms while Sirena makes oversized video installations. You can spot simmering tensions in the relationship long before Nora does, but when she finally discovers that her friend has betrayed her in the most humiliating way possible, it leads to a long overdue awakening. She comes to life in a series of raging internal monologues, deciding that “to be furious, murderously furious, is to be alive.”
The horror of a life lived small and politely seems to haunt Messud as much as Nora. When she was a child, her Canadian mother put aside her ambitions to be a lawyer while her father worked for a French specialty steels company that took the family around the world, stopping in the U.S., Australia and Toronto. (Messud remembers traumatic co-ed dances at UTS and cycling the paths of Forest Hill.) “It was as if my mother was in a slippery pit trying to claw her way out and was not able to. Being a good wife and mother meant sacrificing all your dreams.” Perhaps the novel is an act of redemption for that generation of women: Nora, self-sacrificing and uncertain, finally unleashes her desire, her anger and her art. On the edge of middle age, she begins to live.
The belated reckoning of a lonely female schoolteacher may be a tough sell—Messud doesn’t spare the reader any of Nora’s quiet desperation. This makes The Woman Upstairs a riskier book than its relatively crowd-pleasing predecessor. When she showed the manuscript to some friends, the initial reaction was far from rapturous: “It was as though I’d farted,” she says. (Others, especially those who have known her a long time, got it.) I found Nora exhilarating, a fiery heroine who arrives to serve all the middle-aged readers, and the young women who will soon see what it’s like when the spotlight swings away, urging us to make the most of that time between here and the finish line—visible, but still up ahead.
The Woman Upstairs
By Claire Messud