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The Woman Upstairs
By Claire Messud
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs is a novel about how hard it is to be a woman. And if your first impulse is to think that this man would find it impossible to enjoy and even admire a novel about how hard it is be a woman, then you would be wrong.
This novel's plot involves Cambridge schoolteacher Nora Eldgridge's obsession with the Shahid family--mother Sirena, son Reza, and husband husband Skandar--who are visiting Cambridge for the year while Skandar teaches at Harvard. Reza, a third-grader, ends up in Nora's class. All is well until a playground incident, in which slurs like "terrorist" are uttered and stones are thrown, necessitates that Nora call Sirena. When Sirena comes to the school to gather her son, she and Nora strike up a friendship. Sirena is an artist, and Nora is, too. Or at least Nora thinks of herself that way. Soon Nora and Sirena are sharing a studio for the year, spending their afternoons drinking coffee, gossiping, and sharing sweets. But the relationship is never quite even. Nora becomes much more invested than Sirena does, and it's pretty clear from the beginning that she's going to get hurt.
But I should back it up a bit. The truth is that the plot here is a bit disappointing, and the end of the novel is predictable and underwhelming. But the plot isn't the point. The point is to understand Nora, or try to. Nora defines herself as a "Woman Upstairs"--that is, a good daughter, good friend and good sister, who fate has marked for spinsterhood, but who won't let a little bad luck and loneliness stop her from being nice. As you might imagine, Nora is coming around to the realization that niceness is overrated. She's trying to own her anger, and to figure out how she might use it.
I'm always personally fascinated by characters trying to make that final leap into adult happiness, and The Woman Upstairs succeeds in part because Nora's desire to fulfill her human potential isn't specific to women. Wants and needs are confusing, friendships can be confusing, and, for some of us, seemingly simple choices are fraught with doubt and endless self-examination.
I think the reason I found this novel so worthwhile, and even fascinating, is that Ms. Messud maintains a generosity with Nora's character. It would be easy for her to make a joke out of Nora, easy for Nora to be much less worthwhile than she herself thinks she is. But Ms. Messud doesn't make it easy for the reader to make that call. For example, Nora's artwork in the novel is portrayed as good, but not great. She works on a perfect replica of Emily Dickinson's bedroom for most of the novel, which is a perhaps a little light on inspiration, but could be a fairly moving in the right hands. Sirena, meanwhile, sharing the same space, works on her own interpretation of Alice's Wonderland. Which sounds trite, and maybe a little worse than Nora's project. But soon it's Sirena's project that takes over the gallery space, the geography of the friendship, and most of Nora's available creative drive. It's clear that Sirena is on an upward trajectory as an artist, while Nora is destined to remain behind.
Somewhat disturbingly, Ms. Messud's life clearly resembles Sirena's much more that it does Nora's. So, the reason that this novel has been written must be that the author finds something worth examining in Nora's existence, or that she has a special insight into Nora's character that she thinks is worth sharing, and not that she personally relates to her. But whatever that insight is, it's never exactly clear, and I don't think the reader's thinking about Nora will deepen dramatically over the course of the novel.
So there are no easy answers here. While it's never quite clear what we're supposed to think of Nora, it becomes clear that what's standing in her way, what's separating her from the Sirena's of the world, is mostly her own outlook. True or not, such an idea is certainly food for thought.
Out of 10: 9