Even before I met Nora, the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, I had already brushed up against talk of her anger.
First, Claire Messud’s NPR interview includes the author reading the novel’s opening paragraphs.
(That’s the now-oft-quoted rant, which begins with “I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl” and ends with “FUCK YOU ALL”.)
And there is the Publisher’s Weekly interview in which the author states “I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman”.
So from the start, I expected to be overwhelmed by Nora’s anger.
I expected to think her the Angriest Woman Ever.
But Nora’s story is not new.
So perhaps it is the public naming and openly discussion of her fury which is uncommon.
For surely readers who came of literary age with the novels of Marge Piercy, Marilyn French, Anne Cameron and Margaret Atwood have met angry women before, no?
Just yesterday, I met another literary mother who would have had much to discuss with Nora’s mother.
She, Kate’s mother, in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland, was angry, too. I wasn’t looking for her, but there she was.
Perhaps, indeed, Kate’s mother was even angrier, for Nora’s mother seemed to have a happy marriage to Nora’s father. (Seemed to, at least, and relatively speaking, of course.)
Kate’s mother did not like her husband and her daughters knew it:
“In her crossed arms, the exhalations of her nostrils, the pinch of her lips, she showed us every day that she didn’t enjoy his company, didn’t find him interesting, and didn’t respect him. Part of it seemed to be that she held him accountable for the disappointments that life had dealt her, though it was always easier to see that she was disappointed than to understand exactly why.”*
Ah, but there.
She is not angry.
She is disappointed.
Like the characters in Alice Munro’s short stories, Kate’s mother — and quite likely, Nora’s mother, though I’d have to re-read to check the word choice — is one of those disappointed women.
(I did a search query on my document of Munro notes and quotes and came up with thirty findings for ‘disappoint’ and only one for ‘anger’.)
Nora’s memories of her mother might be more similar to Kate’s mother than a reader would expect on first meeting. Nora recalls:
“And there was that edge to her voice, which I thought of then as darkness, and recognize now as rage, the tone that came in her intermittent phases of despair.”
See, there’s the rage. But, as in “White Dump”, the Munro story in which I noted that all three of the women seemed angry, Nora’s mother was in despair, had been expecting something else of her life, like Munro’s narrator:
“Not much to her credit to go through her life thinking, Well, good, now that’s over, that’s over. What was she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this, was over?”
Disappointment. Despair. Sorrow. It’s all-of-a-piece. All of these women, hungering.
And, as Nora observes “hunger of one kind or another – desire, by another name – is the source of almost every sorrow.”
When readers first meet Nora she is, indeed, angry. But as the novel posits: “Depending where you begin, you’ll tell a different story.”
If The Woman Upstairs had begun with “the miracle of my first Shahid year”? When Nora first met and was smitten with Reza Shahid, a third-grade boy in her class, first became involved with him and, then, his parents, Skandar and Sirena? Then readers would have met Nora when she was happy.
Because Nora is not herself when readers meet her. That’s a cliché. But, as Nora says: “This is the trouble with clichés: they describe something truly, and that’s why we use them over and over again, until their substance is eroded to dust.”
Nora, too, feels used, over and over again. And, so, the readers meet her in a rage.
These relationships — with Reza and Skandar and Sirena — they haven’t turned out as she hoped, and imagined, and believed.
She thinks of the Chekov story, “The Black Monk”, and believes that Sirena was simply a delusion. “I just wanted to be got, and I didn’t trust that I would be.”
Even knowing “my own life and how little of what most mattes in it is seen on the outside, how remotely my own outline resembles my reflection”, above all, Nora wants to be got.
But, instead, she feels had.
Like the tiny inhabitants of the dioramas she creates as an artist (when she is not teaching): “…I’d look up from my table and realize that I was alone in a tiny pool of light in a great dark room, as if I were myself the figure in someone else’s diorama, manipulated in my own stage set by a giant I could not see”.
She feels abandoned.
“‘You? But you’re more independent than anyone!’
‘More alone, maybe.’ And for some reason I thought of my mother, each day more trapped, until she was buried in her aloneness, ‘It’s not the same thing, you know.’”
She feels deprived.
“For so long I had eaten my greens and here – at last! – was my ice-cream sundae.”
She feels empty.
“…I still hoped for the richer and more fulfilling and more wondrously open and aware existence that so briefly had seemed possible. Well beyond forty now, I wanted genuinely to give myself the chance at that life, although I didn’t know, really, what it might entail.”
And, yes, when readers meet her, Nora is enraged. Aren’t we all, sometimes?
*Quoting Curtis Sittenfeld Sisterland (Random House, 2013): Chapter 3