And it got to me, all right. I won’t give it all away here, but it begins: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” Nora, the forty-two year old first-person narrator, is spitting mad about having tried to be “a nice girl…good daughter, good career girl…” and how it’s played out for her.
Having devoured page one at breakfast, I wanted to keep right on reading—but I’m a “good career girl” myself, so I headed out to work, anticipating page two and beyond.
The story went in directions I never would have anticipated, until right near the end, when I saw something coming that, by then, Nora should have seen herself—but that is a minor quibble. Nora has wanted so much out of life, but only finds a way to re-capture some of her earlier dreams when she meets the beguiling Shahid family: a little boy to love, a man to admire, a woman—an artist—to emulate.
“Happy, crazy—the name doesn’t for it doesn’t matter. It was like the world was filled with light. This is the trouble with clichés: they describe something truly, and that’s why use them over and over again, until their substance is eroded to dust. But these things are true: I woke up earlier, more refreshed. I had more energy: my mind moved more clearly, more quickly…I was awake in my life in a way completely new to me, and I knew that anything—ah! my art!—anything!—was possible.”
Quite serendipitously, I read The Woman Upstairs right after finishing Excellent Women: two novels about single women. Mildred, who narrates Excellent Women, really is a woman upstairs: she lives above the Napiers, who intrude on her spinsterish existence. Mildred would recognize Nora’s description:
“We’re always upstairs. We’re not the madwomen in the attic—they get lots of play one way or another. We’re 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. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddam tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.”
These books speak to each other so profoundly that I wonder whether author Claire Messud was aware of Barbara Pym’s Mildred when she created Nora, but I’ve found no reviews or interviews that hint at the correspondence. For Mildred, in post-World War II London, “genteel spinster” is one of a handful of acceptable life choices; she (mostly) embraces it, but still ponders the very different life of Helen Napier: impassioned anthropologist, indifferent homemaker, mercurial wife.
In our time, there are so many things a woman can be beyond daughter, wife, mother, spinster—but there are still so many things she is supposed to be. How to cram it all in? How to fulfill the expectations of being good while pursuing a dream of personal achievement, whether in business, art, or other demanding vocation? If we choose one, do we, must we, turn our backs on the other? This quandary is enough to fill any woman with despair, regret, and rage, if only intermittently. Most of us don’t follow through in quite the same way as Nora does: but Messud writes her story in such a powerful, mesmerizing way that we can certainly imagine how it can happen.