The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

woman upstairs

“How angry am I?”

The Woman Upstairs is quite a remarkable book, but I am finding it very hard to write about. Many of its themes and subjects hit much too close to home. I will do my best, though, to give you my thoughts though I’m afraid they are a ramble.

Nora Eldridge is approaching forty, a frustrated artist, single, childless and a third grade teacher at a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She refers to herself as ‘a woman upstairs. We’re 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’. When a new student, Reza Shahid, ¬†enters her classroom she is intrigued by his quiet beauty and soon meets his mother, Sirena. Sirena is a sophisticated Italian artist, on the brink of major stardom in the Parisian art world. Her husband, Skandar, is teaching at Harvard for a year and the whole family, though charming and attractive, is out of place and a little bit lost in America. Nora takes the opportunity to assist them with some of Reza’s problems at school and slowly befriends Sirena. It is not long until she is completely immersed in their lives and even falls a bit in love with both husband and wife.

On an interview on NPR Messud states that she wanted to write a ‘rant’ novel from a woman’s viewpoint. The Woman Upstairs is told in the first person as Nora relates her growing dependence on the Shahid family and the almost fawning devotion she feels for them. As the end of the school year approaches she realizes that the Shahid’s are going to return to Paris and she desperately yet subtly tries to wedge herself into their lives, to make them never forget her, but they are incredibly aloof and selfish. She makes some really poor decisions so the tone is not only bitter toward the Shahid’s – Nora directs most of her anger and bitterness toward herself. A truly shocking betrayal at the end of the novel massively fuels her rage and the reader can feel the heat of hatred coming off her words.

click photo for credit
Claire Messud (click photo for credit)

Nora Eldridge is no Mildred Lathbury. This novel portrays single women in quite a different way than Barbara Pym does. In some ways it is more realistic, but in others it is just too true to life. As a single, childless woman myself I identified so much with many of the feelings and regrets that Nora has. It was upsetting for me to read at times, but also utterly fascinating to see aspects of my situation reflected in a contemporary novel. But this is not only about the plight of single women. In fact, the major theme of the novel may be the exploration of what it means to be an artist. Is Sirena a ‘real’ artist because she exhibits in galleries and has an agent? Does Nora’s art count because she doesn’t? And does being an artist give you license to use and betray people if it benefits your work?

These themes and others (including the subject of women’s anger) meld into an exciting and fascinating story that left me reeling at the end. I did like this novel very much because it tackles uncomfortable subjects in a wry, descriptive, passionate tone and it has so many layers that I am still thinking about it all a week after I finished. I love authors that can make me think and books that make me want to discuss them with others for hours and hours. This would be a fantastic novel for book groups!

After reading this I am having a hard time engaging with any other novels, especially contemporary ones. I’ve turned to non-fiction to purge my brain of Nora and the Shahids. I would like to read more by Claire Messud, but probably not right away. Have you read her? Do you like novels that completely take over your thoughts?

BTW – my spin book for the Classics Club spin is Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.