Review: The Woman Upstairs

by drpoppy

The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I put this novel on my “to-read” list after I read the story about Messud attacking a reporting for saying that she wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, the main character of The Woman Upstairs. I was excited about Messud being angry about being asked a question that she didn’t think anyone would ever ask a male novelist, and figured that even if the book was bad, she deserved the extra purchases that her public frustration got her.

I stand behind the decision and Messud’s justified anger, but unfortunately, I didn’t love The Woman Upstairs as much as I had hoped. Though it has absolutely nothing to do with Nora’s anger, or my unwillingness to be her friend. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I am already her friend, or that I am her. After all, Messud begins with promise and enticement by having Nora suggest that, in fact, ALL women are angry and fed up at being, basically, servants to others. Unfortunately, Nora never really shows her anger, only talks about it. And since the entire novel is about everything that leads up to the episode that unleashes this fury, she doesn’t even do a lot in the way of being a sarcastic or scathing narrator, because in order for us to understand her anger, we must walk alongside Nora while she is in the height of her infatuation with her friend Sirena and her family, thereby spending most of the time with a character who is fueled by obsession and self-doubt, not anger.

All in all, the novel felt (like so many contemporary novels, it seems to me) slight. There was a lot of promise and only a little delivery. For me, it felt like a great idea for a short story that was stretched out too long, or a great beginning to a novel that got cut off too soon. Although there is some payoff near the end, the actual ending felt incredibly abrupt, like it should have just been the start of the rest of the novel. All this said, I did like it for Messud’s interesting commentary on the artist’s life, and whether or not one has to be ruthless to be one. Perhaps, in that sense, the ending is appropriate, since it leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Nora is actually angry enough now to be able to explore her art to its fullest.

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