April 21, 2014
One of the most startling and original novels I’ve read recently is Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Its protagonist, Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged, unmarried teacher, is deeply angry as she looks back on an epic betrayal by a friend. When I started researching the book online, I found a thread of controversy that fascinated me as a reader and a writer.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly last year, Messud reacted with incredulity when the reporter said, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora…would you?”
“For Heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” the author said, listing many fictional protagonists who are highly unsavory, including the pedophile in Vladimir Nabokov’s critically praised Lolita. She added, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”
The controversy still bubbles up online and it plays out all the time among readers. I’ve been at many book club meetings when a reader announces in a troubled tone that she didn’t like anyone in the book. I basically agree with Messud. If I read just to discover nice people like my friends, I’d find a steady diet of that fare pretty boring. One author called certain kinds of women’s novels “slumber party fiction.”
As usual, it depends on the book and how it’s written. Messud’s Nora is a deeply unsettling character because of her rage and the way she interacts with others. She sleeps with her friend’s husband and fantasizes about being the mother of her friend’s child. She’s definitely not a model of admirable behavior – nor is the friend she obsesses about. Likable characters? Hardly. But that doesn’t keep me from appreciating and enjoying an excellent book.