Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"The Woman Upstairs," by Claire Messud

The title of Claire Messud’s new novel, “The Woman Upstairs” (Knopf, 2013), naturally brings to mind such hidden-away women as Rochester’s “mad" wife in the attic in “Jane Eyre.” Nora, the “woman upstairs” in this novel is a variation on that theme: she is also hidden away, although hidden in plain sight. She is a woman who has tamped down her own desires, her hope for artistic expression, fame, and love, as well as her anger at herself and others for her feeling so thwarted. Actually, those feelings are still smoldering, but she doesn’t show them; she purposely puts them aside, being afraid that what she wishes for will never come through, and instead she lives a tidy, helpful, “nice” life as an excellent elementary school teacher, a good daughter, and a good friend. But then something dramatic happens in her life: she meets a family that has settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the year, and her gradually increasing entanglement with them changes her life. The mother, Sirena (“siren”?) is an Italian artist; the Lebanese father, Skandar, is a visiting professor at Harvard; and their son Reza is a beautiful, bright student in Nora’s class. Nora finds herself feeling more alive than she has for years; she shares an art studio with Sirena and starts working on her art again (unsurprisingly, her art is all small-scale, obsessive, and preoccupied with other women artists who were somehow hidden away); she becomes closer and closer to all three members of the visiting family, to the point of, in a manner, falling in love with each of them in different ways. Messud describes the intensity and even urgency of her feelings with great understanding; we are reminded of how the way a person appears to the world may not at all reveal her or his true emotional self. But the visiting family’s visit inevitably draws to an end, and Nora has to deal with her feelings of abandonment. Then, when we think the story is coming to a close, it takes one more shocking (but in retrospect, not so shocking) twist, leaving readers to figure out what it all means for Nora’s future. This is a very feminist novel, one about the repression of women’s desires and ambitions and the pressures to play it safe and be a “good girl.” Messud is obviously emphasizing this theme through the title and through the name of the main character, which surely is meant to evoke Nora in Ibsen’s play “The Doll House.” This Nora’s character and intense repressed, and then finally expressed, feelings are almost scarily well portrayed here. "The Woman Upstairs," like Messud’s 2006 novel, “The Emperor’s Children” (which takes place in barely post-9/11 New York), has its finger on the pulse of a certain intellectual, literary, professional urban class, and explores themes of interest especially (although not only) to that class. At the same time, her stories and characters are gripping. Given the author’s reputation, my enjoyment of her earlier novel, and the feminist aspect, “The Woman Upstairs” was one of those novels that I couldn’t not read, so to speak, and I am glad I did read it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Site Meter