Tag Archives: The Woman Upstairs

Forget girl in the title, let’s have some women!

I refuse to read books with girl in the title. The titles have become a warning of a genre I will not enjoy – girl fiction. I was reminded of my dislike of the term girls for grown women during the recent world athletics championships when all female contestants were referred to as girls. I ask myself whether we won the battle not to be addressed as ladies (which most of us are not) only to be referred to as girls. Let’s reclaim women and woman for titles. And here are eight titles to start with. And I’ve included one exception to the no-girls-in-the-title rule.

  1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

We start with a classic whose title doesn’t work if you substitute girl for woman. The girl in white. You have lost a crucial ‘w’.

It is an early detective novel with a terrible villain, Fosco. Wilkie Collins was drawing attention to the practice of confining awkward women to mental institutions in Victorian Britain. It’s still a good read.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)

And here are two novels whose titles remind you that women are always close at hand.

  1. The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

This is the story of two women in the new South Africa who, despite being neighbours and of a similar age, can hardly speak to each other and their animosities shape their lives until one becomes dependent upon the other. I included this in the older woman in fiction series. You can read my review here.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso, Vintage (2016)

  1. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

This is any woman, angry and isolated. She adopts the Shahid family when they move to Boston, and feels deserted when they leave. Is her reaction over the top or has she been betrayed and exploited by each member of the family?

I reviewed it in March 2016 and you can read that review here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Virago (2013)

  1. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Christine Delius

A nameless young woman walks from her protestant convent in Rome in 1946 to a church to hear a concert. The signs of war going badly, shortages, threat of bombs are everywhere, as is the presence of the German army. She is German, and eight months pregnant. Her husband has been sent to the North African front despite being wounded. She becomes aware of the monstrousness of the world in which she is caught up.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Christine Delius, Peirene (2010) translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

  1. Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi

Many women have tough lives and none come tougher than this Egyptian woman who has nothing left to loose. I recently included this novel for the 1970s in the Decades Project series on my blog and you can read my comments here.

Woman at Point Zero Nawal el Saadawi, first published in 1975 and in translation by Zed Books in 1983. Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata.

  1. The Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan.

A woman is dumped by her husband for her younger friend, who takes her job and her home as well as her husband. Rose’s revenge is to make a better life for herself than her erring husband and friend manage. The hurt and pain of the betrayal remains but Rose realises that those years with her husband and children cannot be taken from her.

The Revenge of the Middle-aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan, Penguin (2002)

  1. The Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Another Arabic woman, this time from Lebanon, single and no longer young. Aaliya collects and translates European books despite the troubled times in Beirut. Her situation improves when she accidentally dyes her hair blue and the plumbing in her ancient flat gives up. This novel was also included in my older women in fiction series here.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine published in the UK by Corsair (2013)

  1. Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun

This short book is non-fiction. It explores the ways in which women give accounts of their lives, both literally and unconsciously. It asks the question what influences the way a woman thinks she should lead her life. I reviewed this several years ago but it remains one of my most-read posts. You can read it here.

There are four ways to write a woman’s life; the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write the woman’s life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognising or naming the process. (p11)

Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun, Norton (1988)

And here is the exception to the girl in the title rule.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

This novel was the winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014. It is narrated in the brilliant harsh inner voice of an Irish girl. Her life is shaped by the misfortunes of her family and by the abuse she experiences and she takes on as she descends into self-loathing. The final line of the novel is ‘My name is gone.’ Her identity has been subsumed in the awfulness of her life. The voice is jagged, speaks in incomplete sentences, confused (words, sentences, capitals and lower case letters) when being beaten up. It’s hard to read but worth it.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, Faber & Faber (2013)

Over to you

I am sure I have missed lots of books with woman in the title. My daughter spotted one and she has promised to add it in the comments. How about you?

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The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The woman in the attic is known to be mad. From Jane Eyre onwards, if there was a woman in your attic: beware. For not only was she mad but she was vengeful. Indeed there are many vengeful women or mad women in literature. This woman, Nora, is angry, as she tells us in her first sentence:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. (3)

Actually she tells us she is angry and isolated, pretty much the two themes for this character. And she proceeds to tell us just how angry and why.

242 Woman upstairs cover

The story

Nora Eldridge is a primary school teacher in Boston. She is in her late 30s. Her life is not very eventful, even if she has a secret artistic life as a creator of tiny rooms of feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson. She has a good life, although sad to have lost her mother. She lives alone, visits her father, sees a friend or two.

Into this quiet and rather boring life come the Shahid family: Sirena, soon to be an internationally famous artist; Skandar the Lebanese academic on a year’s secondment to Harvard; Reza, their child in her class. Nora falls easily for all three, mostly for representing what she is missing in her life – artistic success, a sexual relationship and a child of her own, but also for their exoticism and the verve they bring to her life. They are in Boston for less than a year. She is betrayed by each of them. They disappear out of her life as if that year had been nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t much to them, but Nora had felt alive in a new way. And worse, a year after they left, she discovers that Sirena has violated her privacy in an almost pornographic way.

The themes

The themes of this novel are loneliness and betrayal. She frequently refers to herself as the woman upstairs, to distinguish between herself and the mad women in the attic. But we are forced to imagine that those mad women were also betrayed in some way, or perhaps only lonely and needy.

We see that the hopes she develops for herself and the Shahid family are all in her head. Her skills, as an artist’s technician, a babysitter, a good listener are used by them and mean nothing more than services rendered, not the basis for close friendships.

Her anger brings her finally to acceptance of her life, and one can’t help feel that she has lost something of value by becoming realistic.

The writing

Despite the action taking place mostly inside Nora’s head, there is a fair bit of humour in this book. For example, the names of the school children: Chastity, Bethany, Noah, Aristide, Ebullience. We know a great deal about the school community through these names.

The pace of the writing got a little too slow for me in the middle section when the artistic collaboration between the women is growing. By this stage we have understood that Nora is unlikely to rein in her obsession with the family.

But the introspection also allows for some very perceptive points about women, and especially women who live alone.

The Woman Upstairs is like that. We keep it together. You don’t make a mess and you don’t make mistakes and you don’t call people weeping at four in the morning. You don’t reveal secrets it would be unseemly for you to have. You turn forty and you laugh about it, and make jokes about needing martinis and how forty is the new thirty, and you don’t say aloud what all of you are thinking, which is ‘Well, I guess she’s never going to have kids now!’ and then, still less admissibly, ‘Is it because she didn’t want them, or because she didn’t get around to it (silly fool, a failure of time management) or is it, poor lamb, because of some physical impediment (pitiable case)? Why is she single anyhow? It’s not as if her career has been so spectacular – she’s only a school teacher, and among school teachers she’s not even Shauna McPhee.’ (279-280).

Angry, lonely women like Nora are more common than you think. They are too embarrassing for everyone, aren’t they?

I am amazed at the psychological insights of so many authors. Claire Messud really knows this character. The image of the nightmare Fun House, its horrors and allure, is a strong way to show Nora’s inner state. She allows us to see the workings of Nora’s mind in a sustained way, from start to finish.

Related posts

Annecdotalist’s review, posted in January 2016, considers the acceptability of angry women in novels, and the assumption that Nora is unlikeable. And she makes interesting comparisons with other angry protagonists, such as Barbara in Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and her own protagonist, Diana, in Sugar and Snails.

Over to you

What did you think of this novel? Did you think that Nora was unlikeable? Was she right to be angry? Did you find her unlikeable? Did she have your sympathy?

 

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Published by Virago in 2013. 301 pp

 

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