I’ve encountered more women [than men] for whom the arousal is not necessarily directed toward a sexual act. I also feel that Nora’s fluidity encompasses all of them, focusing at one time on Sirena, and another on Skandar. I wouldn’t have written if it didn’t seem plausible to me. But we live in a funny time, a funny era, when desire, to be adult desire, has to be conceived as sexual. And that didn’t used to be the case. Sexuality is a social construction as much as anything else and I think the realities of sexuality don’t always fit into the social constructions that we have, and we live in a goal-oriented time—on all fronts. My editor actually asked, after Nora has her encounter with Skandar, “did she have sex with him or didn’t she?” And I said, it depends what you mean.
Claire Messud on desire in her new novel The Woman Upstairs. Means-end rationality penetrates into the deepest crevasses of our desires.