'The Woman Upstairs': A Saga Of Anger And Thwarted Ambition

May 9, 2013

"How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know." Those are the opening lines of Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs. The novel is about a single woman, Nora, who hasn't fulfilled her dreams of being an artist and having children. Nora's plight is complicated when she befriends a woman who has done both.

The book explores deeper themes about what it means to sacrifice everything for one's art and the inner life of a person whose dreams have been thwarted in relation to external realities. Part of that inner life, says Messud, is anger and she has long been interested in how anger manifests itself in the form of a rant.

"As a reader since very early I have found myself drawn to rants," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I was in my senior year of high school when I read Notes From Underground by Dostoyevksy and it was an exhilarating discovery. I hadn't known up until that moment that fiction could be like that. Fiction could say these things, could be unseemly, could be unsettling and distressing in that particular way, that immediate and urgent way. And in the many years since I have read and loved a number of ranting narrators, and it struck me eventually that they were all men and that I didn't know of a book in which a woman expressed her anger and I thought perhaps I should write one."

While Messud, who also wrote the best-selling novel The Emperor's Children, has precisely the things Nora wants, she says that thwarted ambition is something many people know or can relate to in one way or another.

"For many of us, we set out thinking there will be time in the future," she says, "and then suddenly we find ourselves at a moment when we have to acknowledge that the future isn't infinite. ... We can [go] well into our 30s thinking that the future is all ahead of us, and there comes a realization at some point that it isn't and that's a realization that happens for people who are doing what they want to do as much as for people who haven't been able to."


Interview Highlights

On her mother, who was part of the generation for whom the rules for women changed halfway through 

"My mother turned 40 in 1973. So in 1970, when The Female Eunuch came out and Ms. magazine was founded — my mom was 37 with two children, and she was just that little bit too old and the circumstances of her life were set up in a certain way that for her to fulfill her ambitions and dreams she would have had to break with the family. She would have had to leave the family and she didn't want to do that. But I think she always felt a sort of wistful longing, as if she had been left on the shore watching the boat go."

On the entitlement of artists and where she falls on the spectrum

"Our idea of the artists and what the artist should be entitled to and so on is a cultural convention, and therefore changes overtime. So, I think, if you look back to a certain male writer of the midcentury or second half of the 20th century, there are these strong patriarchal men whose wives brought tea and left them in their studies and raised children. So you can go much further back and find that with Tolstoy, too, of course, or Dickens: The wives were doing a lot of work and not necessarily having much fun and the men were getting on with the great work of creating. But I think that now that society has changed somewhat that it's harder for men. Also it may still be harder for women than for men, but it is also hard for men to claim that space as fully as once men did.

"So where would I place myself in a spectrum? Well, you know, I would say not far enough along the selfishness track to get enough done. ... But on the other hand, I can't be otherwise. I can't be who I am and be otherwise. I love my family. I couldn't live without my family. So being attentive to the people that I love is an important part of my life."

On what she learned by watching three people she was close to — her mother, father and aunt — face death in different ways

"One thing I learned is that I could not have anticipated how they would have responded — how they would have confronted mortality, each of them. Although after the fact it made sense. But beforehand I wouldn't necessarily have anticipated [it]. So, I think ... it's true that we don't become different people in the ends of our lives. We don't suddenly transform into somebody else but, in a funny way [and] to get back to Nora, there is some way in which the self that you are inside has no choice but to manifest itself. There is no more pretending."

On living with her husband, New Yorker fiction critic James Wood

"He's my first reader and we know each other very well and, unless he thinks something is disastrous, in the first instance he's encouraging and vague: 'Keep at it. Keep going' and when there's a draft and it's possible to be a more critical reader in a productive way, then he will be, but if I showed him 20 pages, he won't start doing line edits or say, 'This character needs more development on page four,' you know. He won't do that. He'll just say, 'Keep going. That's great.' ... But he will [be more critical] later on. He's well trained."

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