“We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation … not a soul registers that we are furious.”
I’m sorry that I’m getting sand and mint water all over you, but I’m hiding under the boardwalk in order to rehydrate and write my thoughts out re: the above.
I’ve been in the Cape a week now—send that out to the presses! I bet people have me pegged for a Watch Hill type of girl, but I am fully capable of eating in the beachside assemblages known as “shacks” that populate this town. When I was little, I had sparkle jelly water shoes just like everybody else’s. I assure you, when it comes to recreation, I can get down.
So, the above excerpt is from Claire Messud’s latest novel—not your standard beach read, évidemment, but ever since coming upon “The Last Life” in my women’s studies classes at Vassar, I became addicted to Messud’s knotty prose. Her anger soothes me, it makes me feel vindicated and so much less alone, even though “alone” is what I’ve been dying to be ever since we got out here with Adam and his insufferable friends from Brown. It’s not that I don’t like them (but okay, I don’t), it’s just that they make everything seem so freaking easy peasy. Coming downstairs with their hair all tousled in the morning, reaching with their ballerina arms for the French press I thought to fill with Stumptown coffee even though I’m a non-caffeinated, Fair Trade tea drinker myself; using the “Home and Garden” section of the New York Times as a coaster for their sweating glasses of my homemade basil mint water; turning the pages with dreamy, uninterested eyes; acknowledging my presence as you would a waitress’s. Would you like some fucking pie?
Messud’s latest, “The Woman Upstairs,” tracks the rise and disintegration of an unlikely friendship between two women: Nora Eldridge, a frustrated singleton whose youthful ambitions of life as a great artist are replaced with her reality as a celibate forty-two year old elementary school teacher; and a glamorous new arrival to her just-so life in Cambridge, Serena Shahid, a conceptual Italian artist whose star is very much on the rise.
From the get-go, we are introduced to Nora as a woman who is angry: in fact, she shares her vitriol with us in the very first line: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” From this first page onwards, this book just felt right: right for this vacation in which I, the renter and financier of our perfect, seafront home, have been treated like an incongruous popsicle made out of glass shards; right for life after the #Hathahaters started tracking my every movement: my romantic disappointments, my wardrobe malfunctions (“Her nipples are too perky!”), my singing, my weeping, the way I accepted my Oscar, the way I hosted the Oscars, how I seem too nice to be genuine, too “perfect,” not best-friend material like that hussy, Jennifer Lawrence, who only needs to stumble towards a podium to make her seem “relatable,” despite the fact that she stumbled in a twenty thousand dollar gown.
The attraction and jealousy that Nora Eldridge develops for the un-possessable Serena reminds me of my own efforts at camaraderie with my erstwhile co-star, Amanda Seyfried, during the filming of Les Mis. Like a ball girl at Wimbledon, I ran back and forth for Mademoiselle, bringing her the non-fat coco matcha carob chip shakes she likes so from the food cart—and then there was the collage I made with snapshots of the two of us during rehearsal under a custom type-set heading, “You’re not a mean girl after all!” During the wrap party, I found it in the storage room shoved above the light backdrops when I went to find an extra chair.
When Nora allows herself to be swept up in Serena’s casualness, her love of spontaneity, the good things in life (there is one scene in particular where they get riotously drunk during a girl’s lunch in an Italian restaurant), to me, these aberrations to Nora’s usual indifference hurt me more than the scenes where she lets it all out. Ever since I’ve been in the spotlight, I’ve been stifling a scream, and in Nora’s frustration and indignation I sense the same simmer: the steady flame of disgust and disappointment and regret and envy that has been caustically burning up my insides for much of my life. Sure, I’d love to go on David Letterman and admit to being a total drunk ha ha ha just like Amanda, but it isn’t my fault if I happen to prefer complex wines which you just can’t, you know, chug. And yeah, I could have lived without Sarah Nicole Prickett from Vice comparing me to “princess, theater-shouldered girls who have no game and no sex appeal and eat raisins for desert,” but those raisins helped me lose the twenty-five pounds that got me a damn Oscar, so shove it where the Sun-Maid don’t shine, you Francophile twat.
Nora Eldridge ends her story even angrier than when she began it, and it occurs to me in writing this entry that I’m doing the same thing. It’s just that, it’s been an hour since Adam left with those philistines for ice cream sundaes. By the time they bring me back the Myer lemon sherbet I requested, it’s going to be all melted and syrupy and it won’t be any good at all.
Nobody ever thinks of me. Nobody thinks of Anne. I live behind a mirror. I live behind a mask. I spend my life, like Nora, trying to fit into boxes of my own devising, twisting and turning and smiling for the public while it is the women who shrug their way through life who win the fervent Twitter followers and the breathless fans. Even a deity like Joan Didion—one of her most popular books includes the present participle of the word “slouch.”
I’m missing something. I’m doing something wrong. If I could only turn my “life of quiet desperation” into something loud…
—Courtney Maum is a fiction writer based in between the Berkshires of Massachusetts and New York City. Her work has recently appeared online in Tin House, Blip, The Rumpus, Vol.1, Anderbo and others. A frequent reader at NY-based series and a Literary Death Match champion, she’s currently working on a collection of comic fiction. Find her on Twitter at @cmaum.
Editor’s note: Any resemblances to actual celebrities — alive or dead — are miraculously coincidental. For more Celebrity Book Reviews, click here.