There is often a blurring of the lines, with creative types, between manufacturing the conditions to create art and manufacturing the art itself. I suppose it’s inevitable that we expend a disproportionate amount of energy shaping the circumstances in which our creativity can flourish. And of course, should those circumstances not match our idealized (romanticized, fetishized) view of them—well then, that just explains the reason for our failures, and our fury. Dammit, if only I had a different job. Or no job at all. If only I had a supportive spouse, or no spouse at all. If only the critical culture out there was more in tune with the type of art I create. Maybe if my children, my parents, could just respect me more as an artist. If only I had a room of my own. This mentality, it seems to me, is bourne out of the notion that circumstances create artistic propulsion, rather than the other way around. I often need to remind myself that this kind of griping, if left to fester, will privilege the lifestyle of an artist over the art itself.
These issues seem to rest at the heart of Claire Messud’s controversial new novel The Woman Upstairs. It tells the story of Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge Massachusetts who holds pretensions toward the life of a working artist. Nora feels she has sacrificed her dreams by comporting herself to various societal pressures and expectations—the chief one being the responsibility of looking after her mother as the woman dies of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Yes, Nora is bitter and angry that her life has worked the way it has, that she is “just” an elementary school teacher and devoted daughter and sister, rather than the fiery creative genius she imagines herself to be. These feelings are aggravated when she meets the Shahids, a family visiting Cambridge from Europe for a year. The patriarch of the family, Skandar, is a visiting professor at Harvard; son Reza becomes a student in Nora’s class; and mother Sirena is everything Nora wishes she herself could be—a full-time working artist with a respectable following and reputation.
Messud brilliantly captures Nora’s inner world as her infatuation with each member of the Shahid clan grows. There is something a bit Single White Female about her obsessions, but Messud is wise to have Nora cast herself as a kind of Alice Munro-esque protagonist struggling to cut her way through all the expectations weighing on her to achieve the life she wants. There is even a part when Nora channels Munro when she hears her mother’s chiding whisper in her ear: “How dare you, Mouse? How dare you? Who do you think you are, Mouse? Who do you think you are?”
So what kind of idealized vision does Nora have for her creative life? Messud portrays it spectacularly, melding together a perfect devotion to creativity with a frothy, flawless domesticity:
If you asked me, upon my graduation from high school, where I’d be at forty … I would have painted a blissful picture of the smocked artist at work in her airy studio, the children—several of them, aged perhaps five, seven and nine—frolicking in the sun-dappled garden … I wouldn’t have been able to describe for you the source of income for this vision, nor any father to account for the children: men seemed, at that juncture, incidental to the stuff of life. Nor did the children require a nanny of any kind: they played miraculously well, without bickering, without ever the desire to interrupt the artist, until she was ready; and then, the obligatory and delightful picnic beneath the trees. No money, no man, no help …
What’s conspicuous about this passage is not just the absence of a man or a steady paycheque (conflated here, as creative women sometimes do, into a single monolithic unit) but the absence of the art itself. We aren’t given even the slightest glimpse into what this fetishized version of Nora is creating. And it is this absence, I found, that provided the novel with much of its narrative drive. The book is less about Nora coming to terms with herself as it is with her coming to terms with the nature of her subject matter.
Of course, her art does have a shape: it takes the form of dioramas of some of her favourite female heroes—Dickenson, Woolf and other solitary figures. The “smallness” of these works are meant to juxtapose the enormity of Sirena’s massive installations. The two women end up sharing a studio space together, and Nora is able to feed off Sirena’s creative force even if it imbues her with jealousy and frustration. Messud takes us step by step through Nora’s infatuations, first with Sirena and Reza, then finally with Skandar himself. To say more would be to reveal various undulations of the plot.
There were times, unfortunately, where I felt that plot took too much of a backseat to vague ruminations and interior monologues; there are large swaths of The Woman Upstairs where nothing much actually happens. Messud does give us a potent view into the complexities of Nora’s character: on the one hand, she is narcissistic and self obsessed; on the other, she has a deep and abiding altruism and generosity toward the needs of others. But the narrative spends too much time in these places and not enough time in the action of the story.
What saved this novel for me, though, is the various small revelations that Nora encounters as her story progresses. Her mother, it turns out, was not the powerless housewife she imagined her to be. Sirena’s relationship Skandar is far from perfect. And, most importantly, her subject matter is one that can obsess her, that can transcend her romanticized notions of the artistic lifestyle.
There is no denying that this is a powerful and well-envisioned novel that captures perfectly a kind of self regard that feels so prevalent to the 21st century. The Woman Upstairs is a deeply contemporary novel that reflects back the darkness and the light of ourselves as we try to shape our own worlds and how we define the meaning of success.