I read The Woman Upstairs, the novel Claire Messud published after The Emperor’s Children, a few years ago, not long after it came out. I was intrigued by the news coverage, and it sounded interesting. It’s about a woman who’s a New England native, an artist, whose life becomes entwined with the family of another, more successful, artist, a South Asian woman married to a Frenchman, and whose own artistic vision is rejuvenated as a result. The novel’s setting is split between the studio Nora shares with the other woman, the public elementary school where she teaches, and her elderly father and aunt who live nearby.
I was right to expect it would be interesting. Nora is a terrific character, and her struggles to find a way to think about how she might fit in, in both the artistic and the domestic worlds, are fascinating. So is the depiction of a somewhat lopsided female friendship. It is absolutely worth seeing how (and how far) this kind of egotistical artist character can be depicted, when the character is a woman instead of a man. It’s very likely that I’ll read this novel again.
I did feel there was something “off” about the depiction of Nora. At this point, I suppose that I’m saying, basically, that I would have written the novel differently, which is a silly kind of criticism to make.
I mean that in both senses, though: I would have written this novel (or at least a novel with this character, with a character who in some essential way is the same character), and I would have written it differently. I’m not only saying, that is, that in some trivial way, Messud has different ideas than I have and came up with a different story about similar situations than I would have. I’m saying that The Woman Upstairs cuts close to the bone in a way that feels, nevertheless, off. These ideas aren’t simply different from mine; I think they’re wrong. This character and this situation are neither foreign to my world, nor good depictions of it—they appear to be descriptions of my world, they appear to have something to say about situations I’ve experienced or witnessed, but in fact, they aren’t and they don’t.
Still, they are fascinating, not least as ways of getting at something I’m interested in. The fact that this “something” can be seen in the way Messud describes is, itself, fascinating to me.
As it happens, the novel and its characters are well-observed. I think many of us have known people like Nora. Messud’s text provokes a shock of recognition. Many of us who’ve known artists and people interested in art have heard the opinions about “the art world” she espouses. And many of us have known people of a similar type, women raised in New England, from privileged but slightly provincial backgrounds, with extremely definite opinions about a lot of things. And many of us have known women who are angry: anger being Nora’s most notable quality. The very first sentence tells us that Nora is angry—that the entire story is fueled by her rage. This would appear to have something to do with her situation: her inability to progress with her art, her alienation from the larger world of contemporary art, her being stuck in an unchallenging job teaching other people’s children. Though, again, she doesn’t, frankly, seem all that angry to me. She seems opinionated and independent-minded. In fact, the way Messud pairs these characteristics with an insistence that Nora thinks of herself as “angry” is puzzling.
Messud clearly has an interest in anger, which plays a significant role in both these two of her novels (the only two of hers I’ve read). Characters in her books tend to be divided into two groups: those who are comfortable and those who are angry. This isn’t a subtle point in The Emperor’s Children: her characters know when they’re angry, and they say so. The actions of the angry characters are driven by their anger. Their writing or their art is driven by their anger. Characters who are not angry do not behave in the same way.
In The Emperor’s Children, Marina is not angry at her father; Danielle is not angry with her mother, and is only momentarily angry when Marina kind of steals a man she’s interested in both personally and professionally; even Julius is not angry with a man who beats him up and leaves him permanently scarred. Murray Thwaite is not angry with the world he criticizes in his lucratively remunerated essay-writing. His wife is not angry with his domestic helplessness or with her underappreciated second shift. The only one who’s angry is poor Bootie Tubb, who didn’t get to go to the Ivy League, and who feels disrespected by his rich relations. In The Woman Upstairs, Bootie’s place is taken by Nora (though in many ways her life has been rather more privileged, actually). In interviews, Messud has suggested that this kind of angry, emotional, unrestrained character is the typical figure of an artist, and she’s compared her characters to Philip Roth’s. But Roth’s angry people are very rarely writers themselves. They are ordinary people whose angry lives the novelist’s stand-in witnesses and transforms for an audience. Roth recognizes that anger is generally somewhat deserving of criticism, and at best comic. Messud, or her narrator, either is unaware of, or determined to ignore, that.
Although it took me a while to get into it, I really liked The Woman Upstairs in the end. Though it’s much shorter than The Emperor’s Children, I think it’s actually more ambitious, forgoing the wordy descriptions and the huge cast list that go with nineteenth-century, or at latest early modern, realism. The Woman Upstairs allows itself to delve further into the thoughts and feelings of its main character than the earlier novel permits in the case of anyone it depicts. And The Woman Upstairs tells us more about its art, about what its characters do, than the longer novel does. That helps to place things in context, more than décor and gossip can do.