“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
“I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl….and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids…It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daugher/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letter on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.”
So opens The Woman Upstairs. It’s the first book written by Claire Messud that I’ve ever read. It is a Big Deal, a wonderful, riveting book that asks big questions, or at least A Big Question about women and art. More specifically, women with art threaded into them in messy, uncontainable ways, not neatly in a pristine helix, but as Gordion knots invisible to the outside but always, always, felt, that take up space needed for other things like oxygen and blood flow. And yet, rather than cut them out, we learn to live with them and their results: the continual hunger pangs for something more, the exquisite and beautiful pain of inspiration continually suppressed, which has no choice but to explode in the brain, blinding, crippling. Always, a smile.
Why don’t we simply create? Perhaps Messud’s truest chord is understanding the depths of self-esteem into which so many women plunge, at some point, often taking up a permanent and furious residence in an abyss. Her protagonist, Nora—the Ibsen association is not accidental—suffers betrayal by and of herself as if it is all she deserves. When she finally achieves that Room of Her Own, so rightly articulated by Woolf, she has to share it, and she does, willingly, with that smile. Blinded by love—erotic, platonic, mothering, artistic—she never suspects that the people she invests in are incapable of feeling the same. at least when it comes to her. When misperceptions occur, Nora immediately blames herself. When she is justifiably angry, a few kind words thrown like crumbs to a mutt convince her that her desires are never really justifiable; she’s not worth it, and thank you for those delicious crumbs. Yum. And yet, in the art that the author has imagined for Nora, in her passion and problem-solving and resourcefulness and humor and compassion, she is, so, so worth it.
Nora is Legion. You see her everywhere. Possibly in your mirror.
Part of the great skill of the book is that the reader—or at least this one, identifying with Nora as a soul-cousin just discovered—walks in Nora’s shoes to the degree that we think, as she does, “Oh, she was just being overdramatic/silly/oversensitive/dumb.” Spoiler here: When Nora discovers that she has been used in every possible way simply to further someone’s art, that someone she loved wholeheartedly simply used her, betrayed her, and continues to smile in her face as the using continues as well, her rage is cathartic, bright red—for her and for the reader who has embraced her.
In fact, the climax of the book is followed by zero falling action, a bold and glorious choice. Nora is clearly just beginning. Her life, finally, is being lived.
“Watch me now,” she says.