The Woman Upstairs: review

The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud
Vintage

Nora Eldridge is angry. She’s done pretty much everything expected of her:  graduates college, holds her dying The Woman Upstairsmother’s hand, calls her father every day, works a respectable job. Except that she was supposed to be a Great Artist, but instead she’s teaching eight-year-olds.  And she’s forty two and single.  “Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury,” Nora fumes.

Now I am I have been a pretty angry woman in my day (or as Nora would say I’m just in touch with my fury), so writer Claire Messud had me on page one. Nora’s rage is palpable from the first chapter and it fuels the events that unfold.

She hadn’t always known the depth of her dissatisfaction, though—Nora made do with girls nights out, an occasional boyfriend, a bedroom set aside as her ‘studio’–until she fell in love with a Lebanese French eight-year-old who walked in her classroom wearing linen Bermuda shorts and an oxford button-down. Reza Shahid. Spellbound, Nora loved his accent, his soft brown eyes, his malapropisms, his impeccable manners. And when she met his mother she was smitten all over again. Sirena was a gifted and driven artist trying to find time (and space) to continue her work while her husband served a year-long fellowship at Harvard.

It is Nora’s love for this family– the family she had always dreamt of having—that awakens the passion in her. Nora and Sirena come to share studio space in an old warehouse where Nora helps Sirena with an installation (presciently titled Wonderland) and also works on her own pieces: small re-creations of famous artists’ rooms. The family fills Nora’s thoughts every minute of the day, and she comes to feel as though she’s never really alive unless she’s with them.

But it’s not her family. And there’s the rub.

Boundaries are violated. Trust mislaid. Lines crossed. Things can’t end well, can they?  Except it’s the loss of what Nora dreamed of and loved that awakens the sleeping giant that is her anger.

I found The Woman Upstairs both difficult to read and reassuring. Difficult because so many woman choose lives that restrict, rather than enliven them. Reassuring because I’m not alone. Is there any real resolution for Nora? Or for any woman living with the rage of a Life Unlived? Are we doomed to become the woman upstairs, some shadow-sister of the madwoman in the attic? Or will that fury stir us into action?

That’s the decision Nora–and every woman–must make.

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