The narrator of The Woman Upstairs is Nora Eldridge, and from the start she describes herself as something of a non-entity. ‘I’m neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, blonde nor brunette, neither pretty nor plain.’ She’s 42 and ‘neither married nor divorced, but single. What they used to call a spinster, but don’t anymore, because it implies that you’re dried up and none of us wants to be that.’ Spinsters, in the old novels, are sexless, meddlesome and prissy. These days, what they used to call a spinster is a fearsome spectre, someone to avoid, like Bridget Jones’s single woman found half-eaten by her Alsatian.
Since Claire Messud can no longer use spinster in its neutral sense of an unmarried woman, she adopts a euphemism in this novel about a very disappointed schoolmarm without a husband or child who becomes obsessed with somebody else’s family. The refrain Nora repeats throughout the book is ‘the Woman Upstairs’, in asides like ‘People don’t want to worry about the Woman Upstairs’; or ‘It’s important, when you’re the Woman Upstairs, never to think of yourself’; or ‘As was so often the case – we Women Upstairs! – her life would be shown to be more important than my life.’ Nora distinguishes the Woman Upstairs from the black man in a ‘Ralph Ellison basement full of light bulbs’ or ‘the madwomen in the attic’. The Woman Upstairs is ‘the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound’. People don’t fear her; they fear becoming her.
Nora’s story begins in the aftermath of an emotional trauma. The experience she is about to recount has done for her: no longer is she the woman with tidy trash and a bright smile. ‘How angry am I?’ she rants. ‘You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ A monologue follows, in which her pointed use of expletives only shows that her rage has as little significance for the greater world as her happiness. Nora declares that she wants FUCK YOU ALL written on her tombstone, but nobody cares, least of all the people who inspired her anger: a nice family of three called the Shahids.
Nora met the family through the son, Reza, who landed in her classroom straight from Paris in the autumn of 2004. At the time, Nora recalls bitterly, her life bored her: she taught – still teaches – third-graders outside Boston, and the children adore her. She spends week nights alone. At weekends she cares for her elderly father. Sometimes she has dinner with her friends, a lesbian couple with an adopted child from China. She describes her life as a long trajectory of nothingness, a highway through a barren, treeless plain. Then Reza arrives, ‘eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale’. Since this is the Boston suburbs, Reza’s father is a visiting scholar at Harvard. His mother is an artist. From the outset, Nora finds herself a little in love with the child, entranced by his European manners and long eyelashes, ‘the carefully marshalled black curls lapping their uneven shoreline along the smooth, frail promontory of his neck’.
The elementary school where Nora teaches is a multicultural parade of ethnic names: there’s Chastity and Ebullience, twins whose grandmother lives in Jamaica; Ilya, from Russia; Duong, from Vietnam; Aristide, from Haiti; Ling, whose father speaks Mandarin. ‘We’d had a boy from Oman and there was a girl now in the fourth grade from Liberia.’ There’s also a José and a child named Shi-shi, provenance unknown. Only Reza stands out: ‘He didn’t look like the other children – not because of his olive skin, his fierce little eyebrows, the set of his lip, but because his clothes were so tidy, so formal and foreign.’ Despite his sensitivity and charm, Reza is a target for the other children. Early in the school year three boys gang up on him in the playground, call him ‘a terrorist’ and tell him ‘the playground was for Americans.’
The incident leads to a meeting with Reza’s mother, Sirena, and the beginning of Nora’s friendship with the Shahids. As one might expect from her name, Sirena beguiles Nora, who sees in her the prospect of escape from a life that has begun to calcify. Nora explains how she ended up this way, after abandoning a lucrative career as a management consultant in Manhattan and the white-collar criminal defence lawyer boyfriend of her twenties. (‘You didn’t expect this of the Woman Upstairs.’) The idea of getting comfortably rich in Westchester County bored her, so she left New York to pursue her youthful passion: art. She never ended up making much art at all. Instead she spent her early thirties caring for her sick mother until she died, and becoming an elementary school teacher. Suddenly she finds herself at the point where ‘your life looks small and all and always the same around you, and you don’t think anything will change, you think that hope is not for you.’ What Nora had hoped to achieve at her age, ‘the smocked artist at work in her airy studio, the children – several of them’, didn’t happen. The unexpected appearance of the Shahids gives her hope. Here, at last, are a pair of the artsy, cosmopolitan people she always thought she would become, with the child she thought she might have. Perhaps proximity will make her one of them.
As she gets to know the family, she wonders if what attracts her most is what she calls their ‘foreignness’, the genealogy of which is carefully delineated:
Sirena was an artist – is an artist. A real one, whatever that means. Now she’s even well known, in certain important circles. Even though she lives in Paris, Sirena isn’t French; she’s Italian. This isn’t obvious because her last name is Shahid and her husband’s first name is Skandar, and her son has the same name as the last shah of Iran – not that any of them is remotely Persian. They simply liked the name. Skandar is from Lebanon, from Beirut. Okay, someone in his family was from Palestine before that, but that’s a long time ago now; and at least some part of it, on his father’s side, I think, was from Beirut all along. One part of him is Christian and another part is Muslim, which surely explains a lot about all of it to someone, though not especially to me.
Nora is the child of WASPs who settled in Manchester-by-the-Sea, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, an hour up the coast from Boston. Her family’s so provincial that her brother doesn’t even like Chinese food. Her mother was a disappointed housewife who channelled her energy into ill-fated creative projects and drilled it into her daughter never to give up her dreams for a marriage or a child. One day the family goes to Hunan Gourmet anyway and her mother’s fortune cruelly reads: ‘It is what you haven’t done that will torment you.’
So Nora takes on the mantle of second-wave feminism like a duty, and tries to keep this in mind, but even though she avoided settling down fast and making babies in Westchester, she failed to follow her calling. As she indicates at the outset, Nora is neither here nor there. And a life devoted to art or one sweetened by wealth are apparently the only acceptable outcomes: a median salary and a job well done, as, say, a teacher, are the marks of Nora’s failure. Plus, she’s ended up in Boston, where nobody serious about becoming an artist would ever live and where the only people who make real money are corrupt construction bosses and professional athletes.
The Shahids offer her hope: maybe life hasn’t settled into itself, maybe at the age of 37 something will still happen, a drastic turn. It begins with Sirena’s suggestion that the two women rent a studio together. Sirena’s work ethic and charisma inspire Nora to work on her own art: detailed miniature dioramas of the bedrooms of famous women artists and writers. Drawn further into the family’s life, Nora starts babysitting for Reza, nights after which Skandar walks her home and tells her of his childhood in Lebanon. In case the reader was doubting where this was going, one of Nora’s friends puts it bluntly: ‘So you’re in love with Sirena, and you want to fuck her husband and steal her child. Have I got it right?’ Nora demurs: ‘Not one bit.’ The three adults have dinners together. Nora decides she may be in love with women and nearly confesses her love for Sirena before her lesbian friends talk her down. She dreams of the possibility of moving in with the Shahids and establishing a sort of gynocracy, perhaps in Vermont or Tuscany.
Nora’s manic feeling that the world is opening up to her culminates one evening when she drinks too much wine, dresses up, Cindy Sherman-style, as Edie Sedgwick, and takes a bunch of selfies with a Polaroid camera. She also masturbates, in costume as Edie Sedgwick, on the Astroturf of Sirena’s art installation: it’s called Wonderland and it’s a garden made of trash; descriptions of it are repeated at great length throughout the book. Nora then has some kind of sexual encounter with Skandar: not sex ‘as everyone would assume’, just nudity and touching, perhaps something more, although it’s not described. It’s an encounter so momentous that it’s foreshadowed early on – to the extent that I found myself somewhat anxiously awaiting its arrival, only to be disappointed by its total opacity. There’s no sex in The Woman Upstairs, if you don’t count the masturbation. Instead we have this: ‘When his hands moved to rest, warm, even, like hot stones upon my back, just to be nakedly Nora Eldridge seemed, briefly, as though it could be forgiven; as though it could even be enough.’
Then the Shahids go back to Paris, Nora’s life returns to normal, and she slowly sinks into bitterness. They never call, they never write. Skandar comes to Cambridge for a conference and neglects to look Nora up. Sirena doesn’t seem to know about Nora’s quasi-sexual encounter with Skandar, or to mind, but eventually she has some sort of revenge, one that feels catastrophic to Nora but lacks the potency of a true humiliation. What’s really humiliating isn’t Sirena’s act of revenge, but the basic inequality of the situation: on the one side, an elegant, polylingual family, a couple in love, their beautiful child, and two successful careers; on the other, ‘what they used to call a spinster’. For Nora, and, one gathers, for Messud, it is really that bad to be a 42-year-old single woman: ‘nobody calls you before anyone else, or sends you the first postcard,’ Nora says. ‘Once your mother dies, nobody loves you best of all.’ How awful.
This is a novel that seems to want at every point to demonstrate its plausibility. But the pieces of documentary evidence Messud includes – what music would have been on the radio in 2004, what might be a plausible name for the descendant of Vietnamese boat people in an elementary school in Boston, the traits of an Italian person, a French person, a Lebanese person – seem heavy-handed, like a compendium of Google searches. Messud tends to adorn her non-American characters with obvious cultural signifiers: Reza reveals his Parisian side by having a poster of Zidane on his wall, reading Asterix books and bringing Nora a key chain of the Eiffel Tower after the winter holidays. Sirena makes coffee in ‘an Italian percolator, the heavy octagonal kind that sits upon the stove’. To complicate her as a character, Messud also gives her a touch of old-fashioned Orientalism. She decorates the studio with ‘jewel-coloured lengths of Indian silk’ along with ‘tufted poufs and a tiny Moroccan brass table’; she wears scarves and smells of lemons. ‘You’d be forgiven for thinking Sirena was herself from the Middle East,’ Messud writes, ‘on account of her skin, that fine olive skin.’
By the time Messud has Reza being bullied in the playground, the sensitive boy being called a terrorist by the little thugs, the plot point is a perfunctory exercise in situating the novel in time. ‘This was the fall of 2004,’ Nora says later, just in case we missed it. ‘The wider world was deeply fucked, and home also. Two American wars raging – bloodbaths each, bloodbath major and bloodbath minor, ugly, squirrelly hateful clandestine wars marked by betrayal, incompetence and corruption.’ Messud also mentions the ‘spotless 9/11 sky’ of the day Reza was bullied. The misunderstood Muslim (who is sometimes a non-Muslim misunderstood as Muslim) is by now a familiar figure in Anglophone literature. In Ian McEwan’s Saturday there’s Miri Taleb, a doctor whose torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein makes it hard for the protagonist to continue to oppose the Iraq War. In Amy Waldman’s The Submission there’s the architect Mohammad Khan, who stirs up the fury of bigots when he wins a contest to design a 9/11 memorial. In Dave Eggers’s non-fiction novel Zeitoun, the misunderstood Muslim is doubly misunderstood: first in an egregious miscarriage of justice when he was wrongfully arrested as a possible terrorist after Hurricane Katrina, then, after lionisation by Eggers, when he was rightfully arrested in real life for beating his wife.
What makes it odd that this figure is so central to The Woman Upstairs is that the meaning of the misunderstood Muslim – indeed any notion of a post-9/11 politics – is beyond the understanding of poor, unworldly Nora. But Messud makes it clear that she, unlike her character, knows her stuff. Nora may be ignorant of religious factionalism in Lebanon, but the author isn’t (Skandar’s half-Muslim and half-Christian background ‘surely explains a lot about all of it to someone’). If the reader thinks it strange that a child of Palestinian heritage shares a name with the CIA-sponsored dictator in Iran, the author helpfully explains (‘they simply liked the name’).
Maybe all this insouciance is intended to make us pity Nora. She means well and wants to be cultured, but she just doesn’t seem very clever. She says art has become about schmoozing: ‘I could have rattled off the bullshit about fragmentation and identity and the tropes of gender, whatever the fuck they are, and Roland Barthes and Judith Butler and Mieke Bal – I could do that, they taught us how to do it, that’s what art school seemed mostly to be for, but I couldn’t do it with a straight face … and that’s why I went to get my master’s in Education and appeared to myself and to the world to have forsaken my one dream.’ But wouldn’t a person capable of bullshitting about Barthes come up with a less literal and uninteresting artwork than a diorama of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom?
So Nora’s still single, and she never got married and never had kids and has only had three dates in four years. But however hard the novel, in its facticity, strives towards plausibility, it’s what makes Nora happy that seems the most impossible. Take this moment of supposed joy with Sirena: ‘It was simply fun to turn up the radio and the heat in the car to full blast, to sing along, like hams, to Macy Gray – “Try to walk away and I stumble …” – and then to roll into the Avril Lavigne hit of the time that the third graders loved without having the faintest idea about the emotions it expressed.’ Even at her happiest, Nora made me depressed.