The Woman Upstairs: Rage, Rejection and A Plot Twist You See Coming Halfway Through the Novel


She is angry, and why not?  Her mother died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, she works as an elementary school teacher but wants to be an artist, she just turned forty-two and she’s in love with three people, none of whom love her in return.  On the opening page of The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud’s latest novel, Nora Eldridge tells us just how furious she is:  “It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.”

Sheesh, Nora.  When you start a novel that way, it seems it would be difficult to build any tension over the succeeding 300 pages.  Much like Frank Underwood killing that dog within the first two minutes of the first episode of House of Cards.  The subtlety of  foreshadowing is lost on both counts.  Ultimately, both The Woman Upstairs and the House of Cards ask, and answer, the timeless question:  What would you do for . . .?  Art in the case of Messud’s novel.  Power, or course, in the House of Cards.


But back to Nora.  Michiko Kakutani calls it a mash-up of Chekhov and “Single White Female.”(  There’s a tendency among current novelists to disregard the need for a likable, or even sympathetic, protagonist.  And as much as Nora wants to be “a good girl, a nice girl, a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl . . . (who is) good at (her) job and great with kids,” I didn’t really care what happened to her.  She helps an artist friend construct their own version of Wonderland and then Nora, much like Alice, completely loses her way among the double-speaking Jabberwocky, falsely smiling Cheshire cats and the ubiquitous, multiply-referenced aspirin flowers.  (An aside, Frank Underwood style:  Boyoyboy does Claire Messud like her aspirin flower creations.)

The writing is intriguing, though, and the three Shahids — the father, the son and the Holy Ghost of a mother/artist — with the-woman-upstairs_originalwhom Nora is in love are at times interesting.

But the plot twist screams itself halfway through the novel and for the remainder of the book I was waiting for the reveal that I knew was coming.  And it did.

In all, The Woman Upstairs didn’t reveal anything ground-breaking about human nature, the current society, art or artists.  To say much more would reveal the entire plot and I won’t should you choose to read it.  But is it really revolutionary to know that artists will do  anything for their art just like politicians, like the fictional Frank Underwood and the all-too-real Chris Christies of our world, will do anything for their own advancement?  But what a Mad Hatter Frank Underwood would make.

A book club menu would include coffee and red wine served in chipped coffee cups with pastries purchased from a nearby cafe placed on the table in wax paper.  That’s all I seem to remember being consumed in the novel.  But if you want a recipe, here’s my favorite Butternut Squash Soup.  It has nothing to do with the book, but I’m making a batch right now.

Peel butternut squash.  I use a chef’s knife, cut the throat off and stand it on end and slice the thick outer covering away then chop up the neck first.  Then take the round bottom and find a way to remove the peel.  Here’s a handy primer:

Place the cut squash in a stock pot, and pour in enough chicken broth to reach the top of the squash.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to a boil then put a top on the pot, and reduce the heat to allow a low simmer.  Cook for about 20-30 minutes, until squash is tender.  Turn off the heat, allow to cool.  Place the squash mixture in a blender and blend under creamy and smooth.  At this point, you have all kinds of options.  When you reheat it (slowly), you can add cream, half and half or milk.  I generally add nutmeg, brown sugar and ginger.  Today I’m going to try using molasses and honey instead.

Music is maybe a little more fun:

Pink Floyd’s The Wall (widely believed to synchronize with the Disney Alice in Wonderland movie)

The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love c.d. (the entire c.d. is a concept album, rock opera/fairy tale and the haunting, sometimes creepy, overwrought music should be a nice accompaniment to a discussion of what would you do for art.