“The Woman Upstairs”
I’ve finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House. All you want is that door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it. No: let me correct that. In recent years, there was a door, there were doors, and I took them and I believed in them, and I believed for a stretch that I’d managed to get out into Reality – and God, the bliss and terror of that, the intensity of that: it felt so different – until I suddenly realized I’d been stuck in the Fun House all along. I’d been tricked. The door marked EXIT hadn’t been an exit at all.
In The Woman Upstairs written by Claire Messud, the narrator is Nora Eldridge, an angry 42-year old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts who had two real dreams for her life: to be an artist and a mother, neither of which she obtained. Instead of pursuing these goals, she becomes a third grade teacher eschewing for one reason or another the men who could have fathered her children along the way. Looking back, she realizes that she has no one to blame but herself because she never had the strength or
ability to say “Fuck Off” to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. Men have generations of practice at this. Men have figured out how to spawn children and leave them to others to raise, how to placate their mothers with a mere phone call from afar, how to insist, as calmly as if insisting that the sun is in the sky, as if any other possibility were madness, that their work, of all things, is what must – and must first – be done. …You need to see everything else – everyone else – as expendable, as less than yourself.
Nora had become, in her words The Woman Upstairs – the calm, reliable, organized middle-aged good daughter, niece, sister, and friend who rarely thinks of herself and doesn’t cause any trouble. Outwardly, she is the epitome of restraint (and she knows it) but internally she is an inferno, hungry for everything the world offers but not within her reach.
Feeling isolated and misunderstood, Nora trudges along through her depressing life until one day she meets the Shahid family: the totally adorable 8-year old Reza who joins her classroom at the beginning of the school year, and his parents: the captivating Sirena, an Italian artist and Skandar, a sophisticated academic who has accepted a fellowship position at Harvard. As Nora gets to know the family, she falls in love with both who they are individually and collectively which eventually leads to a very unsatisfying situation for Nora (not a spoiler as the reader learns this in the first few pages of the novel).
The book begins five years after Nora meets the Shahid family. The reader gets the feeling of being in an interrogation room, sitting at a table across from a defendant as she confesses to a crime. Except, there was no crime per se unless crimes of the heart – as alleged by Nora – are a serious and unforgivable offense.
Nora isn’t just angry about a relationship that didn’t work; she is angry with herself and the world because she knows the children and the art studio don’t exist unless there is money, a man, and help; none of which she has. To be a successful artist requires more than talent; a ruthlessness that Nora knows she doesn’t have and that’s a tough pill for her to swallow. And, to be the mother she wants to be requires time – time that would take her away from being an artist. And, so the novel really appears to be about balancing work and personal ambition, children, and love – something that very few people excel at without casualties along the way.
Life’s funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true. When you realize that, there’s still so much of a life to get through.
I love this book for so many reasons but mostly because of the raw vulnerability of the narrator and the unpredictable ending. The bomb that drops in the last chapter brings surprising closure to a story that is really just a beginning.