I read The Emperor’s Children liking it enough to finish it, and I was curious about The Woman Upstairs when I read a review. I found it in my school library’s Popular Reading hash and read it in a single day. Its protagonist is a failed woman artist – or at least a woman artist who has never become really successful – and the novel charts her through her embrace and then defeat of failure. I’m disquieted by how much she resonated with me – how meaty her character was, how warm. Her anger was bracing and savory, pleasurable to read:
“I always thought I’d get farther. I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do, but the failure – the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit – is all mine, in the end. What made my obstacles insurmountable, what consigned me to mediocrity, is me, just me. I thought for so long, forever, that I was strong enough – or I misunderstood what strength was. I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you’re taught to eat your greens before you have dessert….No, 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….”
The narrator isn’t venting her anger, but instructing with it, creating:
“But if I can just explain, all will be elucidated; and maybe that elucidation alone will prove my greatness, however small. To tell what I know, and how it feels, if I can. You might see yourself, if I do.”
I like the might.
At the end of a page of insisting that men are great because they are selfish, and she will therefore be selfish, she will attain greatness by insisting on her greatness: she just might be worth empathy. Just might.
I know why this book resonates with me: it’s about a woman who feels betrayed by her friends, abandoned by her dreams, and ashamed of her life. This narrator doesn’t need to do too much work to connect with me. But why do I feel so satisfied by it? Is it because at the end she decides to give herself over to anger? She’s likeable, even though she’s angry – her anger is entertaining. She’s personable, and plenty of the story is given over to creature comforts and picky details – in the story of her triply unrequited love affair, they become talismans for affection.
She doesn’t feel pathetic, even though she does all the things that made me feel pathetic. She feels – and maybe at the end of the book, proves – that giving in to resentment makes you stronger. Resentment is focus. Bitterness is power.
I’ve been through several rough and superficially thankless years, and broken off with a dear friend – one who made me feel more connected to my most cherished and most daunting aspirations. And this idea that I need to be more reckless and ruthless is appealing – it would mean an end to sacrifices, at least the kind you make for yourself.