The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Claire Messud challenges the reader from her opening sentence and sets the tone for the book.

 "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that."

So we are plunged into Nora Eldridge's mindset from the very beginning. Nora is 'the woman upstairs'. We meet her at aged 42 but the story she tells us dates from when she was 37. The perspective is always Nora's and most of the book is in the form of an internal monologue.  

    As a character, Nora is complex and difficult to pigeonhole. You feel her anger and frustration at how her life has turned out. She feels that she has become invisible to the world, unremarked and unmarried. Where is the special future she dreamed she would have? Instead of becoming an artist with a family and rich life, she has ended up teaching, back in her childhood Boston suburbs. Apart from her aging father and absent brother, she is largely alone When she meets the seemingly cosmopolitan Shahid family, they seem to epitomise all that she could have been. Skandar, the husband, is a visiting scholar at Harvard. Sirena, the wife, is a moderately known artist. Their child, Reza is enrolled in Nora's class. One by one, she becomes obsessed with them all. 

    After Sirena invites Nora to share her studio space, Nora begins to rekindle her creative instincts. Whilst Sirena is creating an installation, 'Wonderland', she works away at her dioramas of scenes in the lives of Emily Dickinson, Alice Neel and Virginia Woolf. They are all retreating from the world, in contrast to the final scene where she plans to recreate Edie Sedgwick who was one of Andy Warhol's subjects. Nora sees her as existing only in Andy's art, an object to be gazed at. The relevance of her choices becomes clearer as the story unfolds.  

    It is only at the end of the story, with its shocking, surprise twist, that I realised that actually the whole thing had only ever been presented through Nora's eyes, with very few actual events taking place. We see the Shahids only through Nora's eyes and never really know what they each think. We never hear the conversations they must have had about her. We don't really know what they know about her dealings with each one. The story spans the time they had in Nora's life, when she felt that she had become almost one of their family and stepped over the usual boundaries she kept in place as their child's teacher.  We know about Nora's anger but not much about how they are feeling.
 
     This is a book in which the quality of the writing shone through.  I admired how it was constructed and how Messud used language. I never warmed to any of the people in the book however, not even Nora and so largely this was a book which I respected but never really engaged with. I was never really convinced that at 37, Nora should regard herself as someone who life has passed by. For me, how I felt was summed up in the loss of the gifts which Skandar leaves for Nora and which she loses before we know what he has written in his book for her. I felt a bit short changed  

In short:  a well written, intense telling of a vulnerable and lonely woman's life.

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