Review of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Nora is forty-two, unmarried, childless, and an elementary school teacher in Cambridge when we first meet her. She is seething with anger because her late 30s were not a good time. Between taking care of her dying mother, teaching children when she really wanted to be creating art, and getting tossed about in a complex relationship with the Shahid family, it’s no surprise. What is a surprise is that no one knows. That’s because on the outside, Nora is “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.”
The Woman Upstairs is a dark and gripping portrait of Nora Marie Eldridge who gave up her dreams of becoming an artist because she felt she wasn’t good enough. She felt obliged to take the sensible route, to be responsible. When the Shahid family moves to Cambridge, she sees a way into the life she always imagined. Nora’s boring existence falls away as they pull her out of her humdrum existence and into their shiny bright world. Initially, she falls for their young son Reza when she becomes his teacher. He is lovely and sweet and comes to feel almost like the son she never had. Nora is then drawn to his mother, Sirena, who is on the brink of being a major player in the world art scene. Nora and Sirena share a studio where Nora creates miniature dioramas of rooms where her idols lived–Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Edie Sedgwick. She loves the camaraderie and their shared passion for art. Feelings of love develop for Sirena that make Nora come alive. Finally, Sirena’s husband Skandar turns his enormous charm and intelligence Nora’s way. There is no turning back now. Her life has never felt more vibrant, more right. It’s everything she’s needed to escape the prison that was her life up until this point.
But we all know what happens when you hitch your wagon to someone else’s star. This cannot end well. The book winds it way through the nooks and crannies of the journey Nora takes to her supposed happy place only to find that she has misread all the signs in the road. The tension builds into a psychological thriller that ends with a very surprising plot twist.
One of the pleasures of reading Messud is the way she slips in lovely unexpected words that readers don’t normally find when reading fiction. She says, “bathetic bullshit,” or, “my lost paradisiac year.” I was smitten with “I, like the yellow fat around the foie gras as I scooped it out of the jar, was positively deliquescent.”
Messud continually probes beneath the surface to reveal much about humanity that usually remains unspoken. “It’s the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate.”
The Woman Upstairs is a book I couldn’t put down until it was over. Then I was sad to say goodbye.