January 28, 2016 · 12:08 am
Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs opens with the forty three year old Nora Eldridge describing her rage. Anger at a lifetime of aiming to please others and of diminishing her desires, but more importantly anger that the promises made to her by life – becoming an artist, having a child, attaching to a significant partner – are not realized. As much as she is angry that these promises aren’t realized, she’s angry that she wants them in the first place. Anger that she is relegated to the position of ‘woman upstairs’ (a frequent refrain in the novel) who subsumes her desires and is thought by the outside world to have no desires in the first place.
From this opening of anger the novel wheels back five years to Nora’s first person description of her encounter with the Shahid family – Reza, Sirena and Skandar. Encounter seems too light a word for the intense relationships that unfold between Nora and each member of the family, and Nora and the family as a unit. Pulled together by art Sirena and Nora push one another artistically and in Sirena Nora sees the example of the life she wants and feels entitled to lead. Nora’s love for the family is as much a love for its individual members as it is for the promise of this life that she should be leading, but is continually and perpetually left out.
Jealousy is portrayed with such deft complexity in this novel as it is never named – or only ever fleetingly – as such. For Nora it’s not that she overtly desires and covets (though she does) the particular pieces of the Shahid life, it’s that she has actively rejected the opportunity to have such a life herself – actively chosen not to take it for hope of something more, or better, of deeper, or because she thinks she should.
It is in some ways a slow novel, and at times I found myself losing patience with Nora. I anticipated the climactic revelation of the rage (the explanation for which the opening chapter promises), but it wasn’t until the final chapter that I realized with what urgency I wanted the reasons for her anger to be made clear. It was a gripping final scene and is well worth the slower development of character.
Love this blog? Tell a friend!
Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction, Prize Winner
Tagged as anger, art, Claire Messud, fiction, Giller prize, jealousy, New York Times Bestseller, New York Times Notable, sex, The Woman Upstairs, women, Women in literature, writing
February 24, 2015 · 4:55 pm
I’m not a parent. Most of the significant members of my social circles have become parents in the last year or so (friends, colleagues, siblings). It’s been hard at times to be the child-less 30-something among a seemingly ever-expanding network of parents. Sure you say, they don’t stop being siblings or friends, and you’re right, they don’t, but they become something else, too. And in becoming, add to their vocabularies, stories and frames of reference experiences that I can only imagine and witness: baby-led weaning, sleep training, pumps, exhaustion and marital discord. At this point in my life I am interested in parenting in the way I am interested in filing my own taxes: I’m conscious of the merits of taking part, wary of the responsibility and the risk of fucking it up, and secretly suspicious that the claims of it being ‘so hard’ are overstated.
Anne Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset takes up these questions about parenting by following one parent – Mary Rose – over the course of a week as she grapples with the tensions of raising kids in the particular moment of yuppy, 2014, Toronto. Okay, so the particular moment of 2014 Toronto, but also Mary Rose’s own experience as a child and how her relationship to her parents colours her self-conceptualization and realization of her own identity as a parent. That is to say, there’s a bit of past-present blurring and Mary Rose-and-her-mother blurring throughout.
It would be oversimplified to say her understanding of parenting is ‘fraught,’ but it is. Her parents experienced miscarriages, stillbirths and the death of a child; these experiences contributed to postpartum depression that necessarily impacted the way Mary Rose experienced her own childhood and the way she conceptualized what the acceptable activities and attitudes of parents include. Mary Rose and her partner Hillary raise an adopted child and a biological child (for Hillary, but not for Mary Rose), complicating in the novel how biological connections shape – and don’t – parenting. They’re also lesbian parents in a 2014 Toronto that has legalized gay marriage and (as of yesterday) introduced gay marriage into the curriculum, but still encounter tension in the representation and construction of normalized ideas of ‘family’ and ‘parent’. Add the complications of parenting in an era of anxiety, hyper-vigilance and over-protection (I recently read and enjoyed Hanna Rosin’s “The Overprotected Kid” which is well worth a read if you’re interested in how surveillance culture is impacting parenting norms). Add to that the week depicted is one in which Mary Rose must parent “alone” as Hillary is away.
I’d probably have enjoyed Adult Onset a lot more if I wasn’t currently surrounded by new parents. Don’t get me wrong – I love the babies in my life and the parents raising them. I don’t mind – in fact, I usually enjoy – hearing about teething, naps, day care and the toll it takes on the body. At the moment I’m invited to watch and to listen the transformation and power of parenting in my real life, and so the opportunity to do the same in a novel is – while beautifully rendered, full of complication and nuance, exceptional writing and strong characters – not immediately exciting. But it was a great read and will – no doubt – lend itself to a rich discussion at the next book club (where, yes, I’m the only non-parent).
Love this blog? Tell a friend!