I chose to read this novel on short notice–the book I’d wanted to pack for a weekend away did not fit into my limited luggage space (Spirit makes passengers pay for carry-on bags, so I packed for three days in only a purse!) so I made a snap decision to buy The Woman Upstairs on my Kindle. I’d heard about it chiefly because it provoked some controversy about the way people discuss female protagonists (specifically, I think, in novels written by women), so I was curious. If I’d known a little more about it, I probably wouldn’t have bought it, though, and that would have been for the best.
Nora Eldridge, the novel’s protagonist is a third grade teacher, an artist, a single woman, and an unreliable narrator. She fancies herself a “woman upstairs,” her moniker for a middle-aged woman who has done all the right things and then been packed away, out of society’s sight and mind. For the bulk of the novel, she is thirty-seven years old; she refers to herself as middle-aged and feels constrained by her age as if it is too late for her to be anything other than “the woman upstairs.” This was my first problem with the book. I felt the same way when I read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. I don’t know if I’m fooling myself or if I’m truly a product of an exceptionally stunted NYC environment, but people here are still young in their late thirties and early forties. They’re still sexy, often still dating, still experimenting with art and careers. I can’t imagine anyone I know thinking of a 37 year old person as middle-aged. This novel is set in Boston–are people middle-aged at 37 in Boston? To me, this strange manipulation of time, which seemed really out-dated–maybe thirty years ago this is what middle age was?–was just one of the artificial notes in the novel.
The central motivation of the novel was another. Nora encounters a family, the Shahids, and falls in love with each of the three family members–her perfect eight year old student, Reza, his burgeoning art-star mother, Sirena (Sirena–get it?), and his intellectual father, Skandar. It would be completely insane to become obsessed with people in the way that Nora becomes obsessed with these three (like they’re sirens). She shares an art studio with Sirena, teaches and babysits Reza, shares long walks with Skandar, and they completely absorb her every thought. I couldn’t buy that someone could be so thoroughly entranced by these people. It felt contrived. I found myself wishing that there were something else going on in the novel, too. I would have bought her obsession if it was paralleled with something else, if it coincided and interacted with another story line, but it didn’t. It was the only plot point. And, even so, it didn’t seem particularly high-stakes. The pay off at the end of the novel–the “twist”–did amp things up, and was, to me, a successful surprise, but because it changed the novel by casting back on it, it still left what led up to that moment feeling largely inessential as it unfolded.
This is all to say, I think, that this novel would have been much better off as a short story. I feel the same way about it as I felt about The Golden Bowl (read: bad). The action was so slight; the weight of the novel was in its interiority. Because Nora just went over and over the same reality, changing it only in her mind, the novel was repetitive and circular. I only needed to hear what intrigued Nora about each member of the Shahid family once. I only needed to see one example of how they affected her. The suffocating nature of her obsession could easily have been rendered in a small space, and the narrative arc was simple and straightforward enough that it would have been much more engaging if compressed.
The actual art was another sticking point for me. I wish I knew way less about both Nora and Sirena’s projects because hearing about them in detail made it clear to me that Claire Messud isn’t an artist. Sirena inspires Nora to return to her own art–she creates miniature models of the rooms of four artists: Emily Dickinson, Alice Neel, Virgina Woolf, and Edie Sedgewick. This, plus the fact that a review I read of the book points out that Nora is the name of the protagonist of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, probably intentional given the extensive literary allusions throughout the book–is a little on-the-nose. Nora, though, is envious of Sirena’s imagination and her artistic efforts are diverted into helping her with her installation, based on Alice in Wonderland. Sirena’s project was supposed to be good in the world of the book–a really big deal–but it didn’t sound good or like it would make an international splash or turn her into a huge art star. I wish Messud had stopped at a summary of these projects and their reception, without going into the extensive detail that undermined her assertions. In a short story, we wouldn’t have needed all the extra description.
The same goes for the political and philosophical conversations Nora had with Skandar. I felt like I could see exactly what Messud was going for–Skandar as an international intellectual in exile, the kind of man invited to every department dinner at Harvard and interviewed about bombings on the news. But would he really have taken the tone that he would take on the news when he was having a dinner conversation? Even if he were discussing “important” issues, would his speech have been so precise, grammatical, thoughtful? I know that dialogue in books has to be more cleaned up than it is if it were transcribed from reality, but I just couldn’t accept Skandar’s speech. It felt false. It felt, to me, like Messud was writing him as if he were a character in a Novel, with a capital N. He didn’t seem real, his conversations didn’t seem real. I think this is one of the reasons I had absolutely no sense of the heat that was purported to be between him and Nora. Even if it were only in her head–which it may well have been–she should have been able to convince me.
My last, biggest criticism is one I feel conflicted about making, but I’m going to voice it anyway. At least five times, maybe more, during the course of reading this book, I had to look up words. I don’t have the world’s best vocabulary and am not the most well-read person on the planet; it makes sense that I would, now and then, come across words I don’t know. But when it happens over and over in the same book, it takes me right out of the narrative. These weren’t important words that needed to be precisely what they were–the book would have been fine without them–but they were also not necessarily easy to figure out through context. It was so distracting, I think, because this is a book written in the first person. Would the voice Nora used in her own head include words like preprandial, gainsaid and etoilated?
What gets me most about The Woman Upstairs is that I think it could have made a great short story. It is disappointing that it is, instead, a not-so-great novel.