This week, I finished Claire Messud’s brilliant novel The Woman Upstairs. I’d read much of the discussion when it came out, including her wise and sharp statements about the idea of “likability” in characters. So I went into this book braced to find the protagonist a horrible person.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself in a profound new way in the character of Nora. After all, I consider myself fairly likable.
A woman in her late 30s/early 40s, who is single and childless, an artist who has chosen a career away from art and who finds – in a family that comes into her path – the excitement and presence that she has been seeking . . . until she is betrayed.
So much of this I understand – feeling isolated as a single woman in a world where most of her friends and colleagues not only are married but have children. The artist who cannot find her way to her art. A woman grown a tang bitter but still trying, still working hard to be kind.
Of course, I am sitting on the other side of many of those things, so I can speak from a distance, I guess. But I didn’t find Nora unlikable at all. In fact, I found her very human, very real, and very honest.
Messud’s language is beautiful – rich with description and temperature. I felt almost as if I knew just how the air felt in every room, every space. And her ability to paint portraits of the characters without overcreating them for me . . . that I’d love to emulate.
Overall, here’s what I’d say about this book – it’s challenging – both as a read and to the establishment who seems to think that only male authors can explore less than ebullient, super friendly characters. (No one would critique Philip Roth for writing a protagonist who wasn’t bubbly.) The language is gorgeous, and the honesty of the story – one often untold – about a middle-aged woman who has not obtained much of what we say women should obtain – a family – is needed. Healing, in fact.
Have you read The Woman Upstairs? What did you think of it?