The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

published 2013   part 2

At the warehouse, we rifled through racks and bins of all kinds – vast shapeless nylon granny dresses, shrunken, felted woolen dresses, polyester stretch pants, sheets and blankets, sequined netting, iridescent organza, animal print plush jersey jackets, bolts of corduroy in extraordinary shades of plum and puce and pear. Sirena fingered everything with her eyes closed, as if the garments had messages in braille upon them – ‘It’s to know if I can work with this,’ she explained, when I teased her. ‘Some fabrics, the synthetics, the fake ones, like some people, is this’ – and she mimed scraping her fingernails on a blackboard.

‘Are there people you don’t like, then?’ I asked. It hadn’t occurred to me before.

‘Nora!’ She shook her head incredulously. ‘Aren’t there people you don’t like?’

‘So many of them.’

‘I can’t work with people I don’t choose, not in this way. For me, life’s too short. Yes? Life is too short. When they’ – she mimed the fingernails – ‘then they must go. Like the fabric, I don’t take it home; so with the people, they’re the same. Not for me!’ 

observations: Nora – a primary-school teacher in the Boston area - makes friends with a foreign family whose child she teaches. She and the mother are both artists, and they share a studio space for one happy year – here Sirena is looking for materials for a huge installation she is making. (Nora, of course, makes tiny little shoe-box sized art – between that and her first name you couldn’t doubt Messud’s commitment to obvious symbolism.)

The book starts out with Nora looking back on this time, very angry, so, obv, something is going to happen, right at the end of the book, which is going to make her so (this is a Messudian structure and number of commas for a sentence).  I so was hoping to be surprised, but the betrayal seemed easy to see coming, there were fairly blatant clues, it was predictable.

Claire Messud did a nice job at creating a voice, Nora was a rounded character. But – the book seems to be claiming that The Woman Upstairs is a trope, that she’s recognizable, that there are a lot of women like that. But she didn’t seem at all recognizable, she didn’t match anything I see in the world. She resembled plenty of other book people though:

- the obsessive teacher in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal 

- Charles Ryder falling love with the whole family in Brideshead Revisited
- the heroine of a rather good but forgotten Stella Gibbons book called Westwood, who is completely exploited by a grand theatrical family.

... and some of the cast of a very obscure play by NC Hunter called Waters of the Moon.

Claire Messud got very cross with an interviewer who said ‘I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook on life is unbearably grim.’ A lot of authors are snooty about readers who want to find characters to like – a question for another day – but here Nora didn’t climb up out of the pages enough, or become real enough, to feel that strongly about her.

The pictures are from the Smithsonian Institute’s collection – on the left, sculptor and designer Gwen Lux, on the right, painter Lucile Branch. The other photo is the studio of a Hungarian artist, Zelma Baylos, who worked in New York in the early 20th century.’

Links on the blog: Sirena's installation is linked with Alice in Wonderland, who popped up in Saturday's entry. Claire Messud is married to James Wood, who wrote The Book Against God.


  1. Now I want to read that Stella Gibbons novel. Must go look for it before I forget.

  2. Moira - Oh, now you've got me thinking about whether we need to like characters to be drawn into a book about them.... I do agree with you that characters have to at least be believable. I have to say, I'm really intrigued with Nora's reaction to the different fabrics in this scene you've shared; they seem almost alive to her.


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