It’s not that Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs was my favorite book ever, or even the best book I’ve read this year. It’s that the opportunities for analysis in Messud’s lovely fifth novel are so ripe, so abundant, that I have found myself for more than a week overwhelmed by the possibilities of this review, by the intellectual tangents and gender-theory diatribes it might inspire. The 16-year-old living inside of me who never really “got” the appeal of Virginia Woolf is afraid I wouldn’t do The Woman Upstairs justice.
So instead here are five passages from TWU, which is about an elementary-school teacher who becomes enamored of a new student and his family. If you don’t like these quotes, you won’t like the novel. If you do, pick it up post-haste.
“The second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get to my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly gone—they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and cute outfits and they care how their hair looks! In the third grade. They care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics. How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in a place where being female means playing dumb and looking good? Even worse on your tombstone than “dutiful daughter” is “looked good”; everyone used to know that. But we’re lost in a world of appearances now.” 
“Obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say ‘Fuck off’ to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. Men have generations of practice at this. Men have figured out how to spawn children and leave them to others to raise, how to placate their mothers with a mere phone call from afar, how to insist, as calmly as if insisting that the sun is in the sky, as if any other possibility were madness, that their work, of all things, is what must—and must first—be done. Such a strength has, in its youthful vision, no dogs or gardens or picnics, no children, no sky: it is focused only on one thing, whether it’s on money, or on power, or on a paintbrush and a canvas. It’s a failure of vision, in fact, anyone with half a brain can see that. It’s myopia. But it’s what it takes. You need to see everything else—everyone else—as expendable, as less than yourself.” 
“It makes sense that if you stand almost daily in the middle of a perfect crescent of shore, with a vista open to eternity, you’ll conceive of possibility differently from someone raised in a wooded valley or among the canyons of a big city.” 
“And it explains much about me, too, about the limits of my experience, about the fact that the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world. Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt it, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to have—that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point. But who I am in my head, very few people really get to see that. Almost none. It’s the most precious gift I can give, to bring her out of hiding. Maybe I’ve learned it’s a mistake to reveal her at all.” 
“When you’re a girl, you never let on that you are proud, or that you know you’re better at history, or biology, or French, than the girl who sits beside you and is eighteen months older. Instead you gush about how good she is at putting on nail polish or at talking to boys, and you roll your eyes at the vaunted difficulty of the history/biology/French test and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be such a disaster! I’m so scared!’ and you put yourself down whenever you can so that people won’t feel threatened by you, so they’ll like you, because you wouldn’t want them to know that in your heart, you are proud, and maybe even haughty, and are riven by thoughts the revelation of which would show everyone how deeply Not Nice you are. You learn a whole other polite way of speaking to the people who mustn’t see you clearly, and you know—you get told by others—that they think you’re really sweet, and you feel a thrill of triumph: ‘Yes, I’m good at history/biology/French, and I’m good at this, too.’ It doesn’t ever occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable.” [22-3]
TITLE: The Woman Upstairs
AUTHOR: Claire Messud
PAGES: 302 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Emperor’s Children, The Last Life
SORTA LIKE: Virginia Woolf writes Notes on a Scandal
FIRST LINE: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”