Psychological Fiction: Claire Messud

Some library cataloger somewhere assigned the subject heading “Psychological fiction” to the library catalog record for Claire Messud’s novel The Woman Upstairs. What does that even mean, I wondered. So, being a librarian, I looked it up, and Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as “a work of fiction in which the thoughts, feelings, and motivation of the characters are of equal or greater interest than is the external action of the narrative.” Well, imagine that! All these years I’ve loved psychological fiction and never knew it! I usually call it “character-driven,” but it sounds an awful lot the same to me.

So, yes. Feelings and motivation are front and center in The Woman Upstairs. In fact, and I think this is terrific, the novel opens with the narrator’s anger and fury. Right there in the first sentence. And Nora Eldridge, the protagonist and the narrator, unforgettably defines her own anger and why she is feeling it. Which is so, so powerful and liberating, I can’t even tell you. This is a story that catapults you right into its emotional center, and there you are, practically breathless, ready to be pulled along for the whole of Nora’s experience.

As a young woman, Nora would have told you that her future would include the following non-negotiable items: herself creating art in a studio and a bunch of children playing outside in a garden. Now, in her mid-forties, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teaches third grade (children) and has a second bedroom in her apartment which she uses as a studio (art). She still feels that she has failed herself; that she has negotiated away her life’s passions in order to be a good neighbor, a good career woman, a good daughter, a good friend.

When the Shahid family enters her life, Nora’s interior world begins to fizz with new excitement, new inspiration, newly-heightened emotion. Each of the three individuals in the Shahid family fuels Nora’s innermost desires: to focus on her art, to truly be seen by another person, to have a child at the center of her life. These relationships, and Nora’s own emotional landscape, fuel the plot of this particularly introspective and soulful novel.

Recent novels that are also described as psychological fiction include:

Fake Plastic Love by Kimberley Tait

Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Also, Claire Messud has a new book out:

The Burning Girl

For another perspective on The Woman Upstairs, see:



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