When I sat down with Claire Messud, the first thing I asked was how she knew exactly how I felt to be turning 42. Her answer? "I've been there."
The New York Review of Books review of her newest novel, The Woman Upstairs, focused on celebrity and our cultural obsession with it. And while celebrity appears as a dominant theme in the plot, it was Messud's crystallization of how it feels to crash into a midlife reckoning that resonated most and haunted me in the days after finishing her mesmerizing novel.
Her protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is a young woman who always dreamt of being an artist but shoved it aside to have a sensible, responsible life. She is 37 when she begins her story, and 42 when she ends it with a threat to "show us." Yes, that's what I would call full-throttle into midlife reckoning. It boils and "burns," and Messud gives us a double whammy to ensure we feel the pangs of midlife. While Nora, leaves you less enthralled with the possibility of living her life than, let's say one might have felt long ago for Lizzy Bennet, her antagonist, the beautiful, talented and celebrated Italian Sirena, also in her 40s, leaves you enchanted. Messud cleverly sets this up. Jet-setting from New York to Paris between intellectual dinners while rearing the perfect child, lounging in the edgy Somerville studio loft she shares with Nora, and married to the handsome, seductive, and intellectual Skandar -- Sirena is the woman you want to interview to find out how she does it. But Messud asks you to sit longer with Nora -- the plain, boring third-grade teacher who lives alone and never asks for more than the drippings Sirena and Skandar leave at their whim.
About half way through the book, she tells Nora about her visit home to Paris. "In this theater I'm a daughter, and a sister and a mother -- never an artist. I could be, I don't know, Luc Tuymans, and it would mean nothing to them. They allow for no room for anything but my duty." You see, Sirena too is watching the clock, that "horizon" as Messud coins it in our interview.
"I feel as though everybody I know, sometime between about 35 and 45, has some version of that realization for themselves and it prompts very different responses in different people. Some people move to another country. Some people buy a red sports car. But I think that our culture allows us to think of ourselves as young for so long, whereas if we were Somali we would be running the household at age 12," says Messud.
But Messud is most interested in the collision between our inner lives and our reality. "An abiding preoccupation for me is how much of our lives are invisible and unknown by other people like the Chekhov story The Lady With the Little Dog. There's that wonderful thing where he's walking his child to school and he's in love with his mistress. He's had lots of affairs before but with this one, he's fallen in love and he suddenly thinks to himself, 'Nobody knows. Nobody knows about her. I'm the only one and nobody can see the things that are most important to me' and then he has this realization that that's true for everybody, and that it's their inner life that matters to them," explains Messud. "I wanted to try to write about Nora's inner life and the relation of that to reality. She builds an elaborate friendship in her mind from external signs which, while not exactly tenuous, don't perhaps add up to the connection she imagines."
While it was Messud's achingly beautiful characters crystallizing midlife that drew me in, it was her grotesque portrait of an inner life free to swell, untethered to the realities of children, a spouse and a mortgage that made me think. Seeing Nora live so obsessively in her self-made dioramas in search of joy made me pity her and find refuge in all the fixings and front-end loading of this stage 40-something stage of life. Perhaps her point was to subtly remind us that it is those realities that keep us from drowning deep into our inner life.
And so for those who live in leafy Cambridge surrounded by alluring visiting intellectuals from afar, students and Somerville artists, it must be said that there is a great writer of our times in our midst who is a nice girl, who never walked out on a friend. Just don't get her angry: Nora is most certainly enraged and I fear to see what she might do next.
Read more of our interview with Claire Messud here.