“I always understood that the great dilemma of my mother’s life had been to glimpse freedom too late, at too high a price. She was of the generation for which the rules changed halfway, born into a world of pressed linens and three-course dinners and hairsprayed updos, in which women were educated and then deployed for domestic purposes—rather like using an elaborately embroidered tablecloth on which to serve messy children their breakfast. Her University of Michigan degree was all but ornamental, and it always seemed significant that it stood in its frame under the eaves in the attic, festooned with dust bunnies, among a dozen disavowed minor artworks, behind boxes of discarded toys. The first woman in her family to go to college, she’d cared enough to frame her diploma, only then to be embarrassed about having cared, embarrassed because she felt she hadn’t done anything with it, had squandered her opportunity. The transition from pride to shame took place sometime soon after my birth, I think: I appeared in ’67, and by 1970, her two closest friends in Manchester had divorced and moved away, reborn into the messy and not necessarily happier lives of the liberated.” (The Woman Upstairs, p. 49-50)
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, is a highly respected and admired author, and I’ve been meaning to read one of her books for a long time. Finally, I read this one, because the summary was the most intriguing to me. I wasn’t disappointed — she’s wonderful at capturing the spirit of the age for two generations. I liked the plot and the small and varied group of characters that play a role in the narrator’s story. I liked the characterization of one successful and one unsuccessful artist. I liked the strong feelings of jealousy, hatred, love, and frustration.
And I liked the well-observed details: food and drink, of course, but also the cups and plates and waiters and cafe environments where the narrator shares food with the other characters, or where she eats alone. Such as this continuing memory of her mother’s era:
“Do you remember the ladies’ lunches of those days? The table set first thing in the morning. Cold poached salmon and Waldorf salad, pitchers of iced tea, sweating bottles of white wine, everything served on the best china, and the ladies all still there in a blue fog of cigarette smoke when I came home from school, as though there were nothing, nothing to call them away. And the knowledge, which I had even then, that once they left the charmed circle, they were gone forever.” (p. 52)
But enough of the portrayal of the seventies, look at these descriptions from the early twentieth century, from the narrator’s (and the author’s) own generation. For example, she brings food to share with her friend who shares her art studio:
“I lingered over my choices in the shops on a Friday evening: flavored breadsticks or big Swedish crackers like enormous communion hosts, wrapped in crinkly white paper; olives, cheeses, cured meats; dolmas; burek; sweet peppers stuffed with soft curd. Tubs of ratatouille, piperade, anchoïade. Endive leaves; strips of fennel. Purple broccoli stalks. Heirloom tomatoes, which cost a fortune in early spring. And sweets: I’d bring such sweets—the famous Highland Avenue cupcakes or sesame buns soaked in honey, or salted chocolate oatmeal cookies, or loukoum, or extravagant bars of Italian chocolate from the deli down the road from my house…” (p. 170)
But in the studio, they drink endless cups of coffee from “an Italian percolator, the heavy octagonal kind that sits upon the stove, and an array of chipped teacups from the Goodwill shop.” (p. 78) And sometimes she shares wine in these same teacups, washed over and over again as she cleans up the studio, often cleaning up both her own and her friend’s messes.
I could focus more on the anger, the sense of betrayal and frustration, the unmet expectations, and the many other fascinatingly portrayed aspects of the narrator’s life. It’s an enjoyable book, but in a way, it’s very much a type of book — one that’s been around for a long time, more than 100 years, about the plight of women in our society. I like to see it as an update on all those books I read in the seventies. I see Messud as the heir of a long and proud tradition, as well as seeing her originality and imagination.
|In a corner of my attic: feminist literature from the 1970s. There’s more than this!
Review © 2022 mae sander