I’ve been reading bits of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs, to my daughter. Sure, she’s only ten weeks old, but it’s never too early to teach a young woman about getting everything she wants out of life, right? In a nutshell, that’s the moral of this brilliant new novel.
So, who is the Woman Upstairs, you might ask? She’s not the madwoman in the attic, but the (reservedly) angry woman “at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell. … People don’t want to worry about the Woman Upstairs. Not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.” In other words, she’s that not-so-young-anymore woman we all know whose life has turned into something other than what she wanted. Messud’s Woman Upstairs, Nora, is single, childless, and works as a schoolteacher instead of the artist she always dreamed she’d become. She realizes what she’s missing out on when she meets — and falls in love with — the Shahid family. Serina Shahid is a “real” artist (not a dabbler like Nora), her husband Skandar is a loquacious intellect, and their son Reza is an endearing third-grader.
I say the Woman Upstairs is the woman we all know, but we can find her in each of us. Because who can claim to have done everything she’s wanted to do in this life? I know I can’t — even though I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. But I can’t help but see a bit of myself in Nora. Her late-night sessions in her art studio remind me of my college years, when I would spend entire weekends up to my elbows in paint or whittling away at a plaster sculpture, taking breaks only to come out for more coffee. Those were the days when I was going to end up in New York. At least, that’s what I told myself.
I don’t make much visual art anymore — but I realize now that it’s not because I put that passion on a shelf. I used it to find my way back to my original passion, my truest one: writing. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been sneaking around at odd hours to steal time with my notebook and a good pen. In fact, I’d come back from a day making art in my studio, and I’d scribble notes about it — it was the only way I could feel like the day was complete. And even now it’s four in the morning and I should be sleeping (I really, really should), but somehow I’ve found myself on the couch with my laptop again, and I know this is all I’ve ever wanted. Actually, it’s more than that — it’s who I am, and who I’ve always been. So it’s a good thing I didn’t end up doing what I thought I wanted to do when I was 20. I know now that I wouldn’t have been that good at it or even liked it very much.
The heart of the novel lies in this single Messudesque (Messudian?) sentence: “In those heady weeks it seemed clear that I owed it not only to myself, but also to my mother — that my fear (the fear that had kept me from pursuing my art more seriously, that had kept me in Boston, that had kept me employed, and surely had kept me single, also) was in fact along with her basic good-Catholic-girl-ness, an inability, ironically, to have faith — truly to believe in the value of my own efforts, in the uniqueness of my own soul.”
I vow to believe in the value of my own efforts. For me, this means always writing. I owe that much to myself and to my daughter, the Little Girl (sleeping soundly) Upstairs. That doesn’t mean I’m going to quit my day job and try to make a living off my creative writing. But it does mean I’m going to always indulge this passion, to let it be what it will be in my life. And to do everything I can to help my daughter believe in the value of her efforts, too, and to always find her way back to her truest passions — whatever they may be.