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Author leaves readers to decide right from wrong in The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud gave a reading from her novel The Woman Upstairs at the Luminato Festival in Toronto.

Lisa Cohen

"Well-behaved women rarely make history," says the women's studies dorm-room poster. But for Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud's latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, this sophomoric truism seems to have hit home 20 years too late.

Nora is a school teacher and a dutiful daughter who experiences a mid-life awakening to herself through a friendship with a bewitching, "exotic" artist named Sirena, whose son Nora teaches and whose drive for artistic recognition drags Nora along in its wake. As so often happens with one-sided infatuations, it peaks and is replaced by a monstrous sense of betrayal. "How angry am I? You don't want to know," reads the novel's first sentence. Messud has described herself as a "happy reader of rants," and the first part of the novel shimmers with rage as Nora-who-knows-better sets the stage for us to meet Nora the meek.

Yet for all the fury on the page, Messud herself is very patient, very circumspect – very Canadian, really (she spent her adolescence in Toronto) – when I speak to her from her house in Cambridge, Mass. And while she is a successful artist with children like the formidable Sirena, "there's much more of Nora's boundarylessness in me than some kind of easiness in my skin and sense of entitlement that Sirena seems to find," she says.

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The book appears to pit dutifulness and its attendant self-denial against vibrant recklessness, but it's unclear from the book which Messud thinks is a better path to take. When I put the question to her, our conversation takes an unexpected turn to Buddhism and points beyond. "The middle way" is a good thing to hew to, she says. "That balance of 'Do no harm,' but also 'How do you find a way that does no harm to yourself first?'"

Messud, who was back in Toronto this week for a reading at the Luminato Festival, is very much about the middle way. Any absolute conclusions I've drawn from the book are gently dismantled.

I'd imagined this book as Messud's cri de coeur for women to stop doting and start saying no ("lean in!"). But despite the signposts – Nora, a woman who builds miniature replicas of rooms she imagines tragic female artists have inhabited, shares a name with Ibsen's proto-feminist heroine in A Doll's House – Messud argues that the epiphany at the centre of the book is much more metaphysical than feminist.

"I remember going to a son's friend's Bar Mitzvah, and the text that he chose to explicate was right at the beginning of Genesis. … It was not about a fall from grace or a fall from perfection, it was about an awakening into consciousness, which is what it means to be human," she tells me. She could just as easily be talking about Nora's trajectory in the novel.

Which isn't to say that Messud's choice to write an angry female character was coincidental. Nora's rage may not be feminist, but Messud's decision to put it into a novel is. Men, says Messud, get away with being a lot more poorly socialized, with lots of latitude for "egotism and self-involvement and obliviousness to others."

"We were friends with Christopher Hitchens when we lived in D.C.," she says, "he was the godfather of our son" – pause – "anti-godfather. … But people would say, 'Please, what I can I do for you? Mr. Hitchens, what can I do for you?'" When some female version appears, she says, someone like Sirena, people see her as exploitative.

Still, Messud is, by her own admission, more of a Nora (the book's progress was delayed for months at a time while Messud cared for her ailing parents) which is perhaps why, when an interviewer from Publisher's Weekly asked, "I wouldn't want to be friends with Nora, would you?" Messud's own niceness slipped. "What kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov?"

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"Are you not aware of the massive irony of even asking this question?" Messud says to me, in disbelief. "The self in this book is the self behind the mask. She's always pleasant, always charming and always self-abnegating, and never whiny and never selfish and never greedy. And yet this is who she is behind that mask. And she's afraid if she takes that person out, people won't like her, and lo and behold, you don't like her! What does that say about you?"

I don't answer; she's not asking me, after all, she's asking the Publisher's Weekly reviewer. But I feel like I've just glimpsed behind the mask myself, and it leaves me wanting more.

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