The Woman Upstairs
by Claire Messud Narrator: Cassandra Campbell Published by Random House Audio
on 4/30/13 Length:
11 hrs 1 min Genres: Literary Fiction
An entire novel spent in the head of a woman who describes herself as “the woman upstairs” (single, childless, never making a fuss and somewhat resentful that she set aside her dream of being an artist in order to please her mother) might not be everyone’s idea of a good read but the character study in play and the tension drawn between who Nora Eldridge is, who she wants to be, and how she begins to evolve was riveting. The dynamic between Nora and the Shahid family who acts as a catalyst for her to move beyond her restrictive life is compelling while also being frustrating. Strong prose and very good audiobook narration easily move the text beyond the small irritants it held for me.
From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor’s Children, a masterly new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed and betrayed by a desire for a world beyond her own.
Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long ago compromised her dream to be a successful artist, mother and lover. She has instead become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her life arrives the glamorous and cosmopolitan Shahids—her new student Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale, and his parents: Skandar, a dashing Lebanese professor who has come to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard, and Sirena, an effortlessly alluring Italian artist.
When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies, Nora is drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family; she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries, and she discovers in herself an unprecedented ferocity—one that puts her beliefs and her sense of self at stake.
Told with urgency, intimacy and piercing emotion, this brilliant novel of passion and artistic fulfillment explores the intensity, thrill—and the devastating cost—of embracing an authentic life.
This review contains spoilers, insofar as I tell you things that happen later in the book. I suspect that even the least observant of readers (a group I firmly place myself in) will fail to be surprised by their occurrence and I found that the narrative tension and strength of the book was never in wondering what would happen and being surprised but rather in the character study and the detailed understanding of what leads up to the inevitable. Nonetheless… Spoilers ahoy!
I’m going to start off by addressing the elephant in the room. If you’re uninterested in the minor Internet kerfluffle that ensued when Claire Messud was asked by a slate.com interviewer about, essentially, the likeability of her protagonist and she responded with a seemingly indignant spate of questions about the likeability of other literary characters (most of them by male authors and so giving the impression she felt the question was based in gender bias) then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.
The question that was posed struck me as more of a lead-in to an interview by a genre reader. I say that out of a belief that, arguably, likeability is a factor in genre reading because (with enough exceptions that I hesitated before making this statement) the additional support of lyrical prose and/or the presentation of universal themes that can deeply engage the reader may be lacking. Having read about the Slate interview prior to picking up the book, I went into it with the expectation that I wouldn’t like Nora or would, at the very least, have to put up with an irrational and angry protagonist who would be made bearable by the writing that propped her up and perhaps some larger themes that might engage my brain. I was mistaken, and after finishing the book I better understand the author’s response to the question.
I don’t need to like the protagonist of the book I’m reading but I do need to understand her, either because the author has constructed a fully-formed “real” character with understandable motivations who acts in ways consistent with her backstory and the events she experiences in the book or because there is a characteristic or a situation specific to my experience or to the human experience that I can empathize with. Messud succeeds on both fronts.
Nora Eldridge is a self-defined “woman upstairs” – unmarried, childless, appearing still on her surface:
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 goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.
Despite the fact that the book begins with “How angry am I?” and early on includes the above description of “furious,” for most of the book Nora struck me more as trapped, struggling, and awakening to new possibilities. Although I was frustrated by the fact that she engineered her own destiny but is compelled to continue to rail against it, there’s a clarity to her perception of who she is and what she wishes she was that, in contrast to how constrained she feels within her own life, creates a strong sense of tension for the listener. She can see the walls that block her, acknowledges that they are primarily of her own making, and can even see past them to what she wishes her life was but she can’t surmount the obstacle.
Nora made the decision to forego art school in order to get, at her mother’s urging, a practical degree that would allow her to support herself if her art didn’t provide for that. She was there to support her mother when she battled cancer and lost and as the book begins, she’s now the dutiful daughter who is always there for her elderly father. She set aside her dreams of being an artist and now she teaches elementary school. While she has friends with whom she interacts, at the end of the day she goes home to an empty apartment and that eats away at her. She struggles to reconcile the life she’s living with the dreams she had when she was younger and her inner self - the person she feels like she is within her own thoughts – and the person that the world perceives her as are at odds.
And it explains much about me, too, about the limits of my experience, about the fact that the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world. Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have—that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point.
When Nora first meets the new child in her class, Reza Shahid, the draw she feels toward him is unsettling and initially struck me as the start of an obsession. When a playground incident occurs in which Reza is injured, it brings his mother into Nora’s life. When the two women discover they are both artists, they strike an agreement to rent a shared studio and it’s at that point that everything in Nora’s life begins to change.
Sirena is aptly named in terms of the dynamic Nora has with her. Nora is drawn to Sirena in some elemental way and she acts as as both a symbol of what Nora might have become and as someone Nora believes can see the real woman and not the outline she’s been forced into in response to life’s expectations. It’s the point at which Nora’s need to be seen can only be fulfilled by the Shahids that my unease began.
Although I in no way intend to imply the book delves into a Fatal Attraction or Single White Female dynamic, the symbiotic relationship that develops between Nora and Reza and then between Nora and Reza’s mother quickly moves toward a parasitic one and I’m put in mind of the kind of unhealthy relationship typified by movies of that nature: the kind where the start of a relationship seems normal but it descends into an unhealthy dynamic that can only end badly. Nora’s sheer obliviousness to the ways in which she might be manipulated is both pathetic and heart-breaking.
Perhaps, in the end, that reader response is validation of the characterization Messud emphasizes so fiercely (and ad nauseum) via Nora’s internal dialogue: that of “the woman upstairs,” the woman whose surface is a comfort in its passivity and seeming lack of need or anger or desire. The woman who, when it becomes clear that she’s none of those things, makes the observer uncomfortable at having their expectations and perceptions shunted aside by the reality of the complexity that each person carries within.
“I see you” and “being seen” are common refrains in the book. Nora desperately wants to believe that someone sees her for who she really is. Thematically that dovetails nicely with the idea of art and the disparate artistic visions that Nora and Sirena have. Sirena’s room-sizedWonderland art installation is about a choice in how we perceive and are perceived:
One Wonderland was about trying to see things as they are, she said, about believing that such a thing as clarity was possible; and the other was about relativism, about seeing things from different perspectives, and also about being seen, and about how being seen differently also changes you. Both possibilities were amazing and frightening at the same time; but only one of them, she said, could lead to wisdom.
Nora’s small and intricately modeled dioramas of an interior landscape where careful observation through a small portal reveals a world of detail is very much like the cage she’s built around her identity and her life, with it’s stifling exterior and rich and detailed interior. Nora constructs a story about her life with the Shahids much like she builds her dioramas and it’s after visiting a friend and entertaining her daughter that the echoes between Nora’s art, her interior self, and her need to be seen begin to sound.
It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Lili’s world was not so different from my dioramas, or even from Sirena’s installations: you took a tiny portion of the earth and made it yours, but really what you wanted was for someone else—ideally, a grown-up, because a grown-up matters, has authority, but is also not the same as you—to come and see, to get it, and thereby, somehow, to get you; and all of this, surely, so that you might ultimately feel less alone on the planet.
Nora wants to be seen and needed for who she feels herself to truly be while fearing that her neediness will give those who “see” her power over her. She’s right. When the veil of her illusions begins to be drawn aside, it’s painful to observe and when she finally sees, literally, how Sirena sees her and has seen her all along, suddenly “being seen” is not such a desirable thing.
As Nora and Sirena’s friendship develops while working together in the studio, Nora inevitably becomes more involved with the whole Shahid family on a regular basis. She begins babysitting Reza. Sirena’s husband, Skandar, begins walking her home on the nights she’s at their house. As Sirena’s attention moves away from Nora and towards her upcoming exhibit, Nora finds herself increasingly drawn to Skandar. Skandar’s cosmopolitan viewpoint and the stories he shares about being a boy growing up in Lebanon force Nora to evaluate her own perspective on the world. As with Sirena, Nora develops an attachment to Skandar that’s largely based on her belief that he understands the real her.
Skandar has a year-long fellowship from a university to write a book about how history can (or can’t) be told truly because it will never encompass a 360 degree view of events. In the end, it must at least be told in an ethical manner. The description of what he does and what his book is about was one of the conversations Nora and he had during one of their walks.
“What does it mean, you see, that the first thing every American child knows about Germany is Hitler? What if the first thing you knew was something else? And maybe some people would say that now it’s important, after the Second World War, it’s ethical and vital that Hitler is the first thing a child knows. But someone else can argue the opposite. And what would it do, how would it change things, if nobody were allowed to know anything about Hitler, about the war, about any of it, until first they learned about Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, about Hegel and Lessing and Fichte, about Schopenhauer, about Rilke—but all this, you had to know first. Or one thing only, the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, or the Goldberg Variations, or Laocoön—one of those things you had to know and appreciate before you learned about the Nazis.”
“But the world doesn’t work like that.”
“No, it doesn’t.” He smiled in that vague way, as if amused by a joke only he had heard. “But what does it mean that it doesn’t? And what would it mean if it did?”
In addition to the fact that personally, I find that to be an intriguing philosophical consideration, it forced me to re-evaluate the way Messud was constructing Nora’s story as well as the way in which Nora constructed the story that she used to define her life.
The construction Nora puts on her relationship with the Shahids, in addition to being rooted in a lie, never seems anything but unhealthy and the degree to which the Shahids, Sirena in particular, become the catalyst that pushes Nora back towards the plans and dreams she had as a young woman to be an artist and not just someone who is occasionally creative (“…a spinster with a hobby”) was discomfiting. Nora seemed to almost need to intertwine the orbit of her life around the Shahids instead of using them to spin off into a completely realized future more in line with her dreams.
This unhealthy dynamic was only emphasized by the way in which Nora actively resents the moments in which she imagines the Shahids’ life is going on without a single thought being spared to her. Those moments were also a reminder of how very self-involved we all can be at times and it typifies one aspect that I disliked about the book: spending that much time with someone so self-involved and immersed in her own head can be very tiring and very frustrating to observe.
When her (literal) dream of a sexual encounter with Skandar becomes a reality, the dynamic between Nora and the Shahids changes once again. I found it fascinating that the dream of the affair with Skandar is far more potent in its detail than the reality of the act when it takes place, which is viewed through before and after perspectives rather than given the immediacy of a description of “during.” The way this both emphasizes the lack of meaning in the act and the difference between what Nora has constructed in her head regarding her relationship with the Shahids vs. what the reality of it is, is notable. The detail that is added in Nora’s later reflection of the event is, again, emphasis on how Nora’s internal life is a very different reality that her actual life – even when she thinks she’s finally aligning both with reality.
Because it’s written from the perspective of the protagonist looking back at the events that jolted her out of her role as “the woman upstairs,” the structure of the story balances the “now” of the evolving Nora, whom the reader can see heading down a path that can’t possibly work out, and the narrative voice of the Nora who is speaking from the future looking back in anger and dismay at her own naiveté. That contrast drives the story forward nicely and pulls the reader along with it. That division in narrative voice is also particularly effective at illuminating the character. When she speaks from hindsight, her “You know, of course…” asides to the reader are particularly engaging because they aren’t truly statements of what’s obvious to the reader, they’re statements of what Nora has just realized herself and is embarrassed to admit so she eases into the revelation with flattery to her listener.
I found this book very engaging; not a surprise considering my love of character-driven novels and my tendency to want to deconstruct the ways in which we think and what shapes us as people. It was also occasionally painful to listen to in the way that listening to someone describe actions that you know will lead to disaster is painful and annoying in the way that spending too much time hearing someone’s self-centered monologue is annoying. The writing is strong in both characterization and in the lyrical nature of the word choices and sentence construction and I recommend it but acknowledge it isn’t for everyone.
Cassandra Campbell’s narration was excellent. I will admit that I spent the first hour wondering if she had been miscast but just as with my incorrect expectation that Nora would be little more than an angry and resentful woman with a grim outlook on life and I would have to find most of my readerly solace in the construction of the prose and thematic elements of the book, I was soon proved equally wrong in my initial impression of the narration. I suspect that my preconceptions of Nora’s character were what led me to expect a hard-voiced narrator who allowed barely suppressed rage to fill every utterance, but I also came to realize that what Ms. Campbell delivered was a far more accurate reading of the text and is the strongest selling point for choosing audio over text for this book.
The point of “the woman upstairs” is that she’s easy to be around and just as easy to overlook. As constrained by life and as frustrated as Nora is on the inside, on the surface she’s the elementary school teacher who leads a nearly invisible life. The narrator selection for this book ended up working to my advantage by reminding me of that fact. It’s with no intended disrespect that I say that Ms. Campbell has an unremarkable voice: it’s relatively soft at its base tone, it’s not noticeably high or low in pitch, it’s relatively “mid-west newscaster” in terms of enunciation and accent, it’s not husky or raspy… it could be anyone’s voice and to a degree, I think it subverts the author’s overall description of the character as “furious” but to the vast enrichment of the listener. It reminds us that beneath anyone’s surface is a complex life (and perhaps a life unlived) and when it winds up into moments of bitterness and true rage near the end of the book, it’s all the more powerful for that contrast.
I found each character to be clearly delineated and their personalities were nicely encapsulated within the voice they were given. Sirena’s Italian accent and her coaxing tone with its notes of subtle flattery was so vocally evocative that it was easy to see how Nora was enticed and how she could allow herself to be misled. Sirena, as spoken, struck me as more self-involved than intentionally deceitful or manipulative and that “read” of her worked better for me than what I might have mentally constructed from the text. Skandar’s cosmopolitan voice with its Lebanese underpinnings was almost ambiguous in its inflections and the vocal subtext during his interactions with Nora was very subtle, matching my uncertainty as to his motivations for engaging with Nora the way he did. Which is all in aid of saying these characters seemed very real and were never simply being voiced by someone.
Because there are two voices to Nora: the retrospective narrative voice that knows how the story ends and the voice of the woman who is going through the real-time transformation due to her friendship with the Shahids, there’s a delicate balance that needs to be maintained in the narration. Ms. Campbell was adept at providing the listener with a very real sense of “now” in dialogue and in the narrative sections that demand a sense of discovery while delivering a retrospective voice that hints at what’s to come without being so layered with disenchantment that the ending becomes a let-down.
I think this is one of those cases where the way in which the narration discovers and delivers the author’s intent makes the audiobook version a better way to go than the text alone.