The Woman Upstairs Claire Messud
The Woman Upstairs begins with a fantastic five-page rant from its main character and narrator, Nora Eldridge. Nora is filled with rage and her energetic opening monologue sets the tone of the story to come:
‘I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anyone’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend … it was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/friend” instead.’
From here, the novel jumps several years back in time to tell the story of what led Nora to this point in her life. A primary school teacher in her late thirties, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nora appears to lead a quiet, ordinary life. It’s the life of a ‘woman upstairs’ – the kind of person who makes no fuss, who does what people expect and who is largely invisible to the wider world. But on the inside Nora is fiercely ambitious and often furious, seeking a way to satisfy her ravenous hunger for something more in life.
She finds this satisfaction in the Shahids, a new family in town. The son, Reza, is in her third grade class and Nora becomes friends with his mother, Sirena, an Italian artist. Nora and Sirena rent an artist’s studio together and Nora begins to pursue her own art once again. At the same time, she becomes more and more preoccupied with the Shahid family, forming intense relationships with not just Reza and Sirena but also Sirena’s husband, Skandar. Nora’s growing obsession with the Shahid family is strange and all-consuming in a way that’s both difficult to understand but perfectly enacted.
The Woman Upstairs reads like a confessional memoir. It’s filled with stories of everyday occurrences, layered over with a sense of impending doom. But it promises more drama than it delivers. The ultimate payoff is a long time coming and what happens may not be enough for some readers. This is a book to be enjoyed not so much for its plot but for the depth of its characters, the strength of Claire Messud’s writing and the fascinating complexity of her ideas.
Nina Kenwood is the Online Manager for Readings.