The brilliance of Claire Messud’s novel, The Woman Upstairs, is taking the pain of a woman symbolically dismissed from view and using that to analyze the pain that an unnoticed person of either gender can endure. Who’s the woman upstairs, and what ticks her off?
Bertha Mason, the mysterious character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is a potentially dangerous madwoman in the attic. Messud handles the allusion so lightly that a reader can fully appreciate the novel without noticing the reference to Rochester’s first wife.
But Messud brings new life to Bronte’s question: Is Mason dangerous because she’s a madwoman, or because cruelty and misunderstanding have reduced her to one?
Put “the woman upstairs” in a contemporary setting, and you can reveal the psyche of a woman treated as if she lacks merit, feelings—in fact doesn’t exist. Her purpose is fulfilling the needs of everyone else, constantly putting herself last, if she counts at all. In The N.Y. Times Book Review, Barbara Kingsolver observes that “A novel’s extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another.” Messud accomplishes precisely that.
So why did this novel fare so poorly compared with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch? Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes) says, “The world doesn’t think what she’s doing is as worthy as what Tartt is doing.” But why? What’s behind the acclaim for a laborious book with a meandering plot and lots of stock characters versus an exquisitely written, deeply analytical one about individual pain representative of all human pain?
It’s all in the scenario. The Woman Upstairs attracts about as much attention as its protagonist, who tells us, “And especially now that I’ve learned that I really am invisible, I need to stop wanting to fly. I want to stop needing to fly.”
The flight Nora Eldridge longs for is the equivalent of High Concept—the Big Idea that sells movies, books, and film options. If your scenario resembles an unnoticed person in hiding, its premise won’t help sell your book. What should you do?
Tip: Decide what really matters to you as an author.
If your heart’s in a winning scenario, you’re so lucky! But maybe your heart’s in writing something agents and critics might consider mundane. Then you must choose between writing the book you long to write or, instead, concentrating on making the sale. There’s no right or wrong answer here. However, you do need to be honest about what you choose, your rationale, and the probable consequences of your choice.
Because the truth is that the woman who wrote a brilliant novel got little recognition, and the woman who wrote one with a High Concept won a Pulitzer. The prose didn’t make the difference; the scenario did.As Messud puts it, “When you are the woman upstairs, nobody thinks of you first.”