A book entitled The Woman Upstairs was on a bunch of year end “best of” lists. I haven’t read the book myself, but the plot synopsis makes me uneasy, and this essay confirms my suspicions:
Like, I think, a lot of women readers, I have lately been discomfited by Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora is pushing 40, single, and childless. She has several close friends, throws fun birthday parties, and makes “serious” art in her spare bedroom. She is also a devoted caretaker of her elderly relatives, and quite good, even excellent, at her elementary school teaching job. Nevertheless, Nora’s placid life is disturbed, from the inside out, when she becomes obsessed with the Shahid family, an artistic, intellectual couple and their precocious young son, who is in Nora’s third-grade class. The Shahids represent for Nora all she has missed out on: marriage, motherhood, and a career in the arts. She stews in a jealous rage toward these people, even as she attempts to attach herself to them; to vicariously experience a life so much richer and more satisfying, the book tells us, than her own.
What’s so bad about Nora? It’s not, as some reviewers have implied, that she is unlikeable in a way female characters ought not to be. The problem is that Nora is a stereotype. Messud has written her as a minimally-updated (Nora has a job, after all, and a sex life) version of a nineteenth century Old Maid: a caricature made nearly revolting by her alone-ness; a sort of leech on the breast of (re)productive womanhood.
Irrational, unpredictable — even obsessed and crazy, under a surface of stable independence. That is Messud’s vision of the single, childless woman. It made me sad and scared and angry. Sad for Nora. Scared to ever become like her. And angry on behalf of all the single women leading impressive and rewarding lives, who have to confront these stereotypes day in and day out, and who might expect something richer, and more unexpected, from one of our leading novelists.