From the outset, it’s been clear that Claire Messud has all the necessary equipment—a fertile imagination, a grown-up sensibility, and writerly ambition in spades—to write very good fiction, perhaps even a novel that defined our times. One could detect in her prose the influence of many writers—Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen are just two that come to mind—without being able to pin her to a particular school or manner. She seemed, that is, very much her own person, trying out various devices as they suited her. If anything stood in her way, it was the fact that her imagination and sensibility sometimes seemed to float ahead of her narrative technique, her ability to engage the reader on a realpolitik level of character and plot development. There was, for instance, her habit of piling on descriptive detail, seemingly for its own sake; of using adjectives (like bulbed in “bulbed nose”) that made you stop and cock your head, trying the images on for size, rather than their really evoking anything you could immediately envision; and then there was the way some of her characters seemed like projections of her authorial voice—like literary exercises, rather than fully fleshed creations.
None of these drawbacks got in the way of Messud’s being hailed, already with the publication of her first novel, in 1994, as a writer to take note of. Although that novel, When the World Was Steady—which follows the radically divergent destinies of two British sisters—strikes me, for all of its excellent moments, as overspun and insufficiently gripping, it won high praise and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Messud’s following novel, The Last Life, published in 1999, took on the ways historical events (in this case, a family’s colonialist past in Algiers) affect the unfolding of individual trajectories. The book moves back and forth in time and place, as did her first novel, cutting an impressively wide swath. Messud juggles a lot of balls—family dysfunction, teenage angst, the price of exile, and the process of self-creation—for the most part fairly effectively. There are, to be sure, scenes and sometimes whole sections that overreach; The Last Life is strongest when it remains inside the head of its fifteen-year-old narrator, the French-American Sagesse, and less vivid when it recounts the complex backstory that led to the uprooting of both of Sagesse’s parents. I’m also not persuaded the domestic drama at the novel’s center bears the weight of the political and philosophical issues that Messud attaches to it. By any measure, though, it is a striking achievement, showcasing the author’s range and dexterity, her fluid use of dialogue and ability to invest even casual perceptions about, say, adolescent friendships with a certain urgency: “For a long time,” observes Sagesse of a best friend who has dropped her, “I was, literally, hungry for her company: I could feel my longing burning calories, hollowing out my stomach and scratching at its walls.”
The year 2001 saw Messud working in a different vein, with the publication of two novellas under the title of The Hunters. The first novella, A Simple Tale, strikes me as one of the best things she has written, despite—or, as is more likely, because of—its tighter focus and scaled-back aspirations. Its nod to Flaubert’s “Un coeur simple” notwithstanding, the story doesn’t much put me in mind of the French master’s spare tale of a servant girl except, perhaps, for demonstrating a greater precision of imagery than Messud had previously employed—as though she had stared down what one reviewer later called her “whorled” language and come away with something cleaner. It tells the story of Maria Poniatowski, an elderly, Ukrainian-born cleaning woman who, after a series of harrowing events—including sleeping in a vermin-infested barracks while working in a German-run munitions factory during World War II—ends up living with her Polish husband, Lev, and young son, Radek, in Toronto. In 1993, when the novella begins, Lev has been dead for more than two decades, and their son, renamed Rod, is married to a woman who is the bane of Maria’s existence—and who, she is irrationally convinced, has hastened Lev’s death. We learn of Maria’s life through her rituals (she covers the living-room furniture in plastic and would rather sit watching TV wrapped in a blanket than turn up the thermostat) and few pleasures (she takes Caribbean and Cuban holidays and likes to dance) and through her interactions with her irritable employer, Mrs. Ellington, and Mrs. Ellington’s daughter Judith. Although nothing untoward or even major happens (except for an incongruous red herring of an opening, with its suggestion that Mrs. Ellington has been the victim of foul play), the story keeps expanding exponentially as it progresses, until by the end one feels one has come to understand the determinedly unreflective Maria (“she did not have the temperament to dwell, but rather the impulse to movement like a coiled spring in her torso”) in all her touching specificity and Chekhovian pathos. The second and title novella, although undeniably skilled in the way of a gothic curio, left me wide-eyed but unmoved, as though I were watching cardboard figures being put through their paces.
Then, in 2006, came Messud’s “breakout” book, The Emperor’s Children, which was both a critical and commercial success, garnering comparisons to the work of Thackeray, Edith Wharton, and Tom Wolfe. (If I had to choose a like-minded writer, I’d opt for Alan Hollinghurst.) For many readers, I suspect, this minutely detailed portrait of three friends—who, a decade after graduating from Brown, converge on New York City in the late ’90s—was a novel that defined an era, or at least a tiny, glittering corner of the universe on the cusp of 9/11. The book has a Victorian energy and sprawl to it, brought to a contemporary pitch, and is consummately knowing about the literary and social worlds it depicts. It is, undoubtedly, something of a tour de force, one in which Messud darts nimbly around, dazzling us with her prodigious gifts. It is also, however, as tends to be true of novels that are so self-consciously performed rather than deeply felt, a bit wearying to get through; although one part of me was caught up in the goings-on, I found myself guiltily checking how many pages were still ahead of me. In the end, for all its effervescence, the half-life of The Emperor’s Children is shorter than it should be; once you have closed the book, the sparkle of the prose fades from memory rather quickly.
If I have sounded like an equivocal admirer of Messud’s until now, let me hereby announce my full conversion to fandom with her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs. For one thing, it is something none of her other fiction has been, which is an absolute page-turner, from its grab-you-by-the-collar opening—“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that”—to its final rumination on the creative uses of anger: “a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me.” For another, it may well be the first truly feminist (in the best, least didactic sense) novel I have read in ages—the novel, candid about sex and the intricacies of female desire, that Virginia Woolf hoped someone would write, given a room and income of her own. The Woman Upstairs takes on, at full throttle, the ways in which women are socialized into being accommodating “nice girls” and the ruthlessness—the “myopia”—that is necessary to pursue artistic ambition. It shows Claire Messud at the height of her considerable powers, articulating the quandary of being alive and sentient, covetous and confused in the twenty-first century.
Nora Eldridge, the novel’s forty-two-year-old narrator, has been, until very recently, a third-grade teacher at Appleton Elementary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a single woman who has learned to be invisible in “a world of fliers.” Her father is a retired insurance man; her mother, Bella—a homemaker given to “intermittent phases of despair” and “harebrained schemes,” whose nickname for her daughter was Mouse—died some years earlier after a long illness. Bella, it turns out, was one of those smart but underutilized suburban women with an “all but ornamental” college degree—forever trying on new occupations, from testing cookbook recipes to designing clothes, and taking classes in pottery and conversational French. Nora thinks of her mother as a cautionary tale of sorts: “I always understood,” she tells us,
that the great dilemma of my mother’s life had been to glimpse freedom too late, at too high a price. She was of the generation for which the rules changed halfway, born into a world of pressed linens and three-course dinners and hairsprayed updos, in which women were educated and then deployed for domestic purposes—rather like using an elaborately embroidered tablecloth on which to serve messy children their breakfast.
Nora also thinks of Bella as the “cheerfully impractical” person who has inspired her own “delusions of grandeur”—her foiled sense of being destined for specialness.
For life, it seems, has not worked out exactly as Nora had planned: “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, doubtless with a dog or two, large ones.” In reality, she is childless and dogless, and she has let her adolescent dreams of becoming a well-known painter lapse. “The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of family and society, and still create! Absurd. How strong did I think I was? . . . Men have generations of practice at this,” Nora goes on to muse. “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 . . . that their work, of all things, is what must—and must first—be done.”
Everything changes in the fall of 2004 (the novel is told in extended flashback), when a new student—an eight-year-old boy by the name of Reza Shahid—walks into Nora’s class on the first day of school, his gray eyes rimmed with “millipedic” lashes, trying not to cry. So starts “the miracle” of her “first Shahid year: Never, in all my life, had I thought, as I did then, This is the answer.” Nora falls in love with Reza and then, gradually but irrevocably, with his glamorous parents—his Italian mother, Sirena, an installation artist whom she decides to share a studio with, and his Lebanese father, Skandar, an academic superstar who dangles his intellect before Nora like the choicest of carrots. This perfect trio of a nuclear family, whose home is Paris and who are in Boston because of Skandar’s yearlong appointment at Harvard, release untold longings in the formerly contained schoolteacher, yearnings that they initially seem willing and able to fulfill. In the presence of Sirena, Nora goes back to making art, putting in “hours and hours and hours of dollhouse labor” on a series of tiny, “Joseph Cornell–scaled” dioramas of rooms inhabited, variously, by Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick. Meanwhile, the Shahids offer her a flattering role as an all-around facilitator of their own more starry lives: Nora babysits Reza; helps Sirena with the technical, grainier aspects of Wonderland, her latest art installation; and listens endlessly to Skandar’s intellectual theories when he walks her home from the studio. “Each of them wanted something, and their wanting made me believe that I was capable. Not that I was an extraordinary woman, exactly, but only not exactly that. Something quite like that. Which always since childhood I had secretly wanted to believe—no: had in my most deeply secret self believed.”
From seeing herself as “a middle-aged spinster,” keeping company with the Garnet Hill catalogue and Law & Order reruns, Nora gradually comes to view herself as someone “visited by love,” existing in a world “filled with light.” (“This is the trouble with clichés,” she points out: “They describe something truly and that’s why we use them over and over again, until their substance is eroded to dust.”) Early on in the ntovel, shortly after meeting Skandar for the first time, Nora has a sexual dream about him, “that kind of bright, real dream that stays with you into the day and changes you, as if something—what?—has really happened.” She also daydreams about living together with Reza and Sirena, “installed in a farmhouse in Vermont, or in Tuscany, or in a thatched bungalow on a Caribbean island.” Although she has intimations of the egotism and selfishness that underlie Sirena’s warmth and Skandar’s seductive style, Nora continues to believe in their life-enhancing effect on her—their ability to save her from “the treadmill of the ordinary.” She both knows and refuses to see, despite the warnings of friends, that her vision of being truly herself with this family, free of the need for mousy masquerades—“after all, the whole point of the Shahids, for me, had been to escape a world of pretending, to be seen for who I really was”—is a dangerous romantic fantasy. When the fantasy finally comes crashing in on Nora, it does so in a way that is both appalling and strangely liberating.
The Woman Upstairs is an extraordinary novel, a psychological suspense story of the highest sort that will leave you thinking about its implications for days afterward. Messud’s skills are all on display here, but they seem to be in the service of a more heartfelt and profound tale than those she has previously told. This novel strikes me, and I mean this as great praise, as the most porous and least insular of her books—one that is open to ordinary concerns and banal considerations, to the reality of the high/low world that swirls around us, a world notated by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry every bit as much as it is by Sylvia Plath and Judith Butler. The result is a work of fiction that is not just beautifully observed but also palpably inhabited by its gifted writer in a manner she has not quite dared attempt before.
Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, is the author of Enchantment (Harcourt Brace, 1986) and Dreaming of Hitler (Crown, 1997).