The main character of Claire Messud's novel, The Woman Upstairs, is a good woman. Nora is a 37-year-old elementary school teacher — responsible, kind and reliable. She is also very, very angry.
Her dreams of being an artist have been suppressed; she is seething inside with rage and resentment. But she keeps her anger in until she meets another woman who has everything she does not: a husband, a child and a successful art career. And then everything begins to unravel. As Nora's relationship with the woman and her family deepens, her inner life begins to come out.
Messud spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about the book and about how Nora's character is different from other female protagonists.
On the literary inspiration for her main character
"It's in part a response to existing, ranting, misfit narrators — the granddaddy of them being Dostoevsky's Underground man. And, of course, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was a response to Dostoevsky. But there aren't many ranting women. So she is, Nora is, a ranting woman who is — you wouldn't, meeting Nora, think of her as a misfit, but her interior life is roiling."
On what feminism meant for an older generation
"My mother was, perhaps, I mean, she was absolutely a feminist in her heart, but by 1970 when the Female Eunuch was published and Ms. Magazine came out, she was a 37-year-old mother with two children who had been moving around following her husband's career. And the idea that she could realize her dreams was not possible. So it was something that was very much instilled in me by my mother that I needed to be financially independent. So for Nora, she has a similar message from her mother that you can't necessarily earn a living being an artist."
On why anger in women makes us uncomfortable
"Well, I think women's anger is unacceptable. We live in a culture that wants to put a redemptive face on everything, so anger doesn't sit well with any of us. But I think women's anger sits less well than anything else. Women's anger is very scary to people, and to no one more than to other women, who think my goodness, if I let the lid off, where would we be?"
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
In Claire Messud's latest novel, "The Woman Upstairs," she presents a protagonist who might, at first, seem to be the anti-heroine, an elementary schoolteacher whose desires to be an artist have been suppressed in the service of sensibility, suppressed but not doused.
Nora Eldridge, the 37-year-old teacher, is still smoldering, and the embers are stirred by the presence of another woman - a whole family, actually - of foreigners - man, woman and child - who present a magical way out, a banquet of experience.
Suppressed artist meets a flamboyant real-life artist - an art, selfhood and what is real and what is stolen - gets played out against a complicated web of human relationships with Nora at the center. Claire Messud is the author. And, Claire Messud, welcome to the show.
CLAIRE MESSUD: Thank you, Jackie. Thanks so much for having me.
LYDEN: It's a pleasure. So tell us a little bit more about "The Woman Upstairs" as you call Nora Eldridge. Maybe you could tell us why you call her that.
MESSUD: Well, she calls herself that. It's in part a response to existing, ranting, misfit narrators - the granddaddy of them being Dostoevsky's "Underground Man." And, of course, Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" was a response to Dostoevsky. But there aren't many ranting women. So she is - Nora is a ranting woman who is - you wouldn't, meeting Nora, think of her as a misfit, but her interior life is roiling.
LYDEN: Why don't we meet her? Please read us a little bit in her voice, would you?
(Reading) How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. I'm a good girl. I'm a nice girl. I'm a straight-A, straight-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody's boyfriend, and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents' (bleep) and my brother's (bleep), and I'm not a girl anyhow. I'm over 40 (bleep) years old, and I'm good at my job, and I'm great with kids, and I held my mother's hand when she died after four years of holding her hand while she was dying. And I speak to my father every day on the telephone - every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river because here, it's pretty gray and a bit muggy too.
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 (bleep) you all.
LYDEN: You know, there's something in her passion which is so attractive. Let's talk a little bit about the storyline. We have here Nora, a schoolteacher. You know, there was part of her, though, Claire, that I thought I didn't understand in the sense of the self-abnegation, seemed a bit of a throwback to me. She's - never mind about not being married, she's decided not to go to art school. And right now, we have such an emphasis in American culture that all your talent should be realized as early as possible. How did it happen that she neglected her talent?
MESSUD: One of the things that I wanted to write about is the generation, which is mine. My mother was perhaps - I mean, she was absolutely a feminist in her heart. But by 1970, when "The Female Eunuch" was published and Ms. Magazine came out, she was a 37-year-old mother with two children who had been following her husband's - moving around, following her husband's career. And the idea that she could realize her dreams was not possible.
So it was something that was very much instilled in me by my mother that I needed to be financially independent. And so for Nora, she had a similar message from her mother, and you can't necessarily earn a living being an artist.
LYDEN: So she missed this message that you can have it all. She is actually pretty responsible, and then along comes her foil, this amazing artist called Serena. Tell us about her.
MESSUD: Serena is on the cusp of broader success, which is something that happens to her after the year she spends in Cambridge. And she has a husband and a child, but she's able to put her art, if not first, then certainly equal with her other responsibilities and over the course of the year, she's preparing for a show. And as the time for the show approaches, she puts her art first before everything else.
LYDEN: Eventually, Serena is able to sort of spellbind Nora into helping her in all kinds of ways. Boundaries get crossed again and again, and Nora talks about that in this book.
MESSUD: Yes. There are things that she signs up for willingly that even if she does so, part of her recognizes, you know, this is a bad choice. I shouldn't do this. So one example would be babysitting outside school. It seemed to break a boundary that you didn't want broken, you know, to enter into the personal life of a family, but more than that, she agrees to do it without being paid.
And she does that because it makes her feel like a relative, as though she's part of the family, which is something she wants desperately. But, of course, the result is sort of terrible.
LYDEN: Claire Messud, let me just get back to a point that we began with at the beginning of our talk, and that was you wanted to write an angry character. And it's interesting, you know, an angry female character. I can think of them almost more in fairytales. What's going on here when it comes to angry female protagonists in literature?
MESSUD: Well, I think women's anger is unacceptable. We live in a culture that wants to put a redemptive face on everything, so anger doesn't sit well with any of us. But I think women's anger sits less well than anything else. Women's anger is very scary to people, and to no one more than other women who think: Oh, goodness, well, if I let the lid off, where would we be?
LYDEN: Without giving anything away, I will say it concludes with taking her own back. But still, when I think about the justification for her anger, it does make me want to go throw a pie or, you know, break a glass or something like that.
MESSUD: Well, I think, you know, there are lots of ways - my hope is that there are lots of ways to read it. And you can take it in all sorts of ways, I hope.
LYDEN: Claire Messud's latest book is called "The Woman Upstairs," and she joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Claire, thank you very much.
MESSUD: Thank you, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.