Asked whether she’d want to be friends with the protagonist in her latest novel, Claire Messud famously quipped in an interview with Publishers Weekly last year, “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” Nora, the main character in The Woman Upstairs, might be described as an “art monster,” a term Jenny Offill coined in Dept. of Speculation.
Nora devotes herself to her work with fervor, but she also behaves in a way the reviewer disliked, which changed her experience with the book. How much should that be discussed in a formal or informal review? Moreover, how deep does likeability go? Are readers at fault for not taking time to get further in the characters’ heads, or are authors supposed to be held responsible for the questionable behavior of their characters?
Messud’s interview seemed to kick off more than a year of authors reflecting on the way the women in their novels were received, especially if the reviewer assumed some traits in their characters were drawn from the authors’ own lives. Edan Lepucki wrote a piece for The Millions this week on the reception of her characters, especially the female protagonist, in her novel California: