I’m immersed in reading Claire Messud’s new novel, “The Woman Upstairs.” It is set in Cambridge and Boston so it’s entertaining to read about characters who meet at Burdick’s in Harvard Square, have friends whom they visit in Jamaica Plain, parents who go to Wellfleet for their anniversary and whose heroine grew up in Manchester By The Sea on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
The first line of the novel begins:
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”
And from there, we are off to the races about women’s plight in the world, serving others, ending up in middle-age or mid-old-age or whatever, feeling as thwarted as their mothers and grandmothers, but in different ways. Believe me, I know about this because the premises of this blog is “life is long” and one can fill in some holes, maybe sooner or later, but that it’s possible. In fact, on page, 41, the book talks about women who are still “blithe in their belief that life is long.” HAH!
And in case you are wondering if I am feeling bad about not having written this book myself, you might be wrong. Lately, I’ve been exploring a new writing setting about a conversation between two women who are strangers to each other and gradually lay out what they think about their lives.
Rage is a big thing in Claire Messud’s book. Pumped up anger, she is most frustrated with herself because she “gave up” on certain ideals that she had wanted for her life. From where I am writing, it also seems possible that there are tons of men too who find themselves in the same boat at some time or another. This is not necessarily a feminist theme resurrected, it is a theme that comes from, in my opinion, the idea and ideal of the American Dream.
We are taught from a very early age that we can be or do anything as long as we work hard enough, are lucky, persevere and fulfill all of our talents and possibilities. It sets a very high bar in life and most of the time, or at least some of the time, most of us take turns at jousting with these ideal windmills. Don Quixote was at least on a horse on the ground, right?
So, we all want to be an entrepreneur, or a singer, or in a rock band, or in movies, or win the Nobel Prize for our scientific discoveries, or create something original in art, or write a bestseller, you get the picture.
I’m wondering if the reason so many of us feel anger or rage or disappointment or humiliation is that we are not feeling good enough about all the things that we have done and are still doing that are personally rewarding–like cooking or making a home that is restful and comfortable for ourselves and others. Isn’t one reason that we are so dissatisfied is that it’s just not in the cards for all of us to achieve our culture’s texted dreams? Where do we fit into this swirling mass of dreaminess in America? I’m also wondering if it isn’t about time for us to think differently about our days so that we can be happier with ourselves and with the people we are attached to?
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book because the pumping tension and rapids of rage bare many of the frustrations that we all have in life. What the heroine does with it is anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.
Postscript: Okay, so the story does a good job of showing the heroine’s vunerability and joyousness when she meets a family visiting from abroad, falling in love with the child, the mother-artist and the intellectual father who walks her home in the evenings when she babysits for the child. The depiction of infatuation and its emotions is nicely wrought and as a reader, I wanted to put out a hand to perhaps bring her down to some kind of reality, but the fantasy was necessary as a build-up in order for her to realize what the truth was (or seemed to be) in the end. Her fury and anger is understandable, at others but mostly at herself so that she comes alive in her own life as a result of these events.
Maybe that’s what it takes for some, especially in a novel about women’s rage. Watching this character’s plummet off the high ledge of her own fantasies is one way to witness a correction. I wonder if humiliation is a key ingredient to seeing the truth about oneself and conclude, that it probably is so. Rage and anger aimed at the outside world reverts inward, shining on our own foolishness for having such false expectations. Haven’t we all been here at one time or another? Eventually, even this wears off and we can go about learning perhaps to live in a new way. Let’s hope so, anyway.