Book review: The Woman Upstairs

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read the now-famous interview with Claire Messud before I ever picked up The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer asks Messud about her character Nora: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud responds: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” (She goes on to list many other fictional bad boys of literature.)

Implicit in Messud’s response is the idea that we tend to embrace unlikable male characters—the Humbert Humberts, the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of our fictional worlds—more readily than female ones.

I agree: we readers shouldn’t need our books populated with likable characters. Still, I love so many books because I love the people who inhabit them. Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Laura Ingalls. I don’t know if I wanted to be their friend or if I wanted to be them, but I definitely liked them. I loved them.

But perhaps, as Messud suggests, this is an unsophisticated way of reading. We grow up, we learn to look for more than kinship and friendship in our characters: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Messud says. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” In other words, we don’t have to love them; we have to believe in them.

So I went into The Woman Upstairs knowing that Nora wouldn’t necessarily become my friend. And sure enough, she wasn’t an especially pleasant person to be around for all those pages. Nora describes herself as “the woman upstairs.” She’s not quite the woman in the attic, the one who goes nuts and burns down the house. Nor is she downstairs with all the other characters. She’s the woman down the hall you say hi to but don’t know anything about. In Nora’s case, she’s thirty-seven and already resigned to spinsterhood. She figures life has passed her by.

But there is a bit of irony in Messud’s angry response to the interviewer’s question: The Woman Upstairs is a book about friendship. When Nora befriends the family of one of her pupils, life opens up to her. Friendship awakens her the way love awakens people, shakes them out of old routines and reveals opportunity. So then, the question of whether Nora would make a good friend becomes relevant to the story. Is the family as enthralled with Nora as she is with them?

The book reminds me (and many other reviewers) of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Barbara Covett was a “woman upstairs,” too. It’s difficult to take these self-professed nobodies, push them to the center stage, and expect everyone to watch with rapt attention. Heller pulls it off, giving schoolteacher Barbara enough wit and realness to make her misanthropic views bearable. More than bearable—fascinating and funny.

In The Woman Upstairs, Nora was too much inside her own head, and her voice began to grate on me. (Weirdly, I kept reading her interior monologues with the inflections of Hannibal Lector.) The ideas and themes in the novel captured my attention and imagination, but the details of Nora’s personality and life (she is a popular teacher who loves kids; she’s beautiful; she’s a runner; she’s the “woman upstairs;” she’s a thirty-seven-year-old childless spinster) didn’t add up. Messud doesn’t ask me to like Nora; she wants me to believe in her. I just couldn’t do it.

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