“Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have -- that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point. But who I am in my head, very few people really get to see that. Almost none. It's the most precious gift I can give, to bring her out of hiding.”
― Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs is a smart book. The writing is smart; the vocabulary is smart; the main character, Nora Eldridge, is smart. The Woman Upstairs is also nuanced and, sometimes, frustrating. Here's the thing: I see some of myself in Nora. Hungry, lonely, angry, unfulfilled, frustrated....yes, I see myself in Nora. She's messy, this woman. She has issues. I get it. She wants more of the world than she can claim. I get that, too. I understand what it is to want to be yourself but to be most defined, instead, by who you are to others. I know what it feels like to be invisible but longing to be seen. I know what it means to be called "unlikeable" because you dare speak these things out loud.
Messud made me work to see myself in Nora, though. She didn't hand it to me; I had to struggle with wanting more from Nora and it wasn't until I recognized that Messud wrote Nora as Nora that I stopped expecting something else. What I mean is this: the book is smart partly because it's true to the main character. An unlikeable character will have unlikeable dialogue, unlikeable pace, unlikeable circumstances. I came to appreciate Nora despite the spots at which I wished the story would just move along already. I found myself noting words I'd never seen before, words I hope might stick with me for a bit. And what stuck with me most was when Nora was most "unlikeable," when she crossed boundaries or spoke her mind.
Messud's writing is gorgeous; vivid and intense, gorgeous and smart (yes, I'm using that word again, because it's so very true). I found myself re-reading passages and pages not because they mattered to the plot so much as they were exquisite in the air, crafted so deftly I was left breathless and wondering how, exactly, she pulled it off. I'll read this book again, just for Messud's mastery of langauge and her pitch-perfect balance of tone.