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?”