THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You donâ€™t want to know. Nobody wants to know aboutÂ that.”
Review by Betsey Van Horn Â (FEB 20, 2014)
The eponymous title of this penetrating and artful novel refers to third-grade schoolteacher and unfulfilled artist Nora Eldridge, who has lived in the Boston area her whole life. It is also the book’s principal motif, surfacing periodically to describe Nora’s various attributes as an uncharacteristically plain woman, a woman who doesn’t rock any boats or shine like a supernova– one who is always nice, mannerly, and unthreatening to others. Essentially, anonymous and invisible. Nora has previously accepted this about herself, living up to the part with emblematic virtuosity.
Unfortunately, this Woman Upstairs quality also tends to create a two-dimensional figure to others, a woman easily dismissed and placed in a mold, or a bin–conventionally boring, predictable, and reliably bland. But, now, at 37, she is haunted by that Marianne Faithful song about Lucy Jordan,Â “At the age of 37 she realized she would never ride through Paris in a sports car, with the warm wind in her hair... ” (Remember that song from Thelma and Louise? It does make me think of someone on the brink)
Now is “The time at which you have to acknowledge that your life has a horizon… that you will never be president, or a millionaire, and if you’re a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way.”
One day, Nora meets Reza Shahid, a student of mixed heritage. His Parisian artist mother, Sirena, is of Italian descent and his Lebanese father, Skandar, is an intellectual and Ethics Historian. They recently moved to the Boston area from Paris. Nora is immediately drawn into their world and attracted to them, as a family and as individuals. Nora is single and childless, and thinks of Reza as she would a son. He is shy and also quite stunning.
So, Nora has finally met the contrast to her ordinariness, a worldly, charismatic family of three, which, enigmatically, turns Nora’s quiet desperation to a barely controlled, boiling rage. We don’t know where all this rage is coming from, at first. That is part and parcel of the immaculate pacing and architecture of this novel, a narrative so deftly chilling that I think my head stood up on my hairs!
Throughout the book, Nora attempts to elucidate to the reader her deep love for all members of the Shahid family, and feels inadequate to do so without worrying that she falls into a clichÃ©d description. She is often on the brink of expressing her profound feelings to Sirena and Skandar, which creates a marvelous reader tension as we bide our time, anticipating what Nora will convey, and how she will convey it. But the reader is constantly privy to her feelings:
“Just because something is invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. At any given time, there are a host of invisibles floating among us…[W]ho sees the invisible emotions, the unrecorded events? Who is it that sees love, more evanescent than any ghost, let alone catch it?”
Nora and Sirena rent a warehouse together as a space for working on their art. Sirena does installation art, with the names right out of fairy tales and myths. Her current project is Wonderland. To describe Sirena’s art–well, you could write a book about it, it is so florid, philosophical, and full of gimmicks and tricks. For example, she would create a world that appeared to be of lush gardens with visions of paradise, a fantasy for us to interpret. But, up close, you would see it is made of garbage and mottled by filth. Her installations limn the line between fantasy and reality, and are vast, expansive. Sirena is on the precipice of artistic success.
Nora’s art, on the other hand, is miniature, and exacting, and insular. She uses historical facts and pictures to piece together dioramas representing the rooms of famous people like Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, choosing ripe moments and themes from their lives–such as Woolf’s rocks to commit suicide, and Dickinson’s obsession with death. Only Edie Sedgwick’s room would be designed out of the imagination, the only piece of her art that had a parallel to Sirena’s imaginative art–exemplifying that line between fantasy and reality.
There are numerous other motifs that resonate, such as Nora depicting life like a Fun House–at once zany and terrifying. Not really fun at all. We read excerpts of Nora revisiting her childhood, which will explain some of her covetousness, and reticence. At this time in her life, she hasn’t had a real passion, not for anything or anyone. All was sacrificed or quashed, in favor of becoming…The Woman Upstairs.
The prose is potent, humid, and allusional. And Messud makes it both provocative and claustrophobic, writing with an inflammatory formality that personifies Nora’s rage burning within her meager existence. There’s very little plot, but you will be on the edge of your seat, compelled. I turned the pages feverishly, as I couldn’t wait to know what went down with The Woman Upstairs.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 486 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Vintage; Reprint edition (February 4, 2014)|
|REVIEWER:||Betsey Van Horn|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Claire Messud|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- When the World Was Steady (1995)
- The Last Life (1999)
- The Hunters (2001)
- The Emperor’s Children (2006)
- The Woman Upstairs (2013)