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The Woman Upstairs

by Claire Messud

Don’t be fooled by the opening chapters of Claire Messud’s new novel, in which Nora Eldridge blazes forth with furious intensity, her words spitting and sparking off the page as she describes who she is, what she is, and why she’s so damned angry. This type of tantrum cannot be sustained. Watch any tyrant, any toddler, and you’ll see that expressing such ferocious emotion is exhausting, and eventually the flame will dwindle away to nothing more than a wisp of smoke.

Nora is angry, and though the reasons she presents in the preamble to her tale of woe are valid enough, they are not the whole truth, which Messud cleverly holds back until the book’s waning pages. We’re being set up, you see, to believe that the story we’re reading is about one thing, when really it’s about another. The problem is what happens in between, which, unfortunately, is not much at all.

When we meet Nora, she is 42, but the bulk of the story, told in the first person, takes place five years earlier. She is an average American woman, a third-grade teacher in Massachusetts who once harboured dreams of being an artist, but who has resigned herself to a life more ordinary. She is a dutiful daughter to her aged but self-sufficient father, a good friend, and a favourite teacher. She lives alone, “neither married nor divorced, but single…. What they used to call a spinster, but don’t anymore, because it implies that you’re dried up, and none of us wants to be that.” And she is miserable.

The arrival of a new student in Nora’s class, a beautiful, exotic boy from Paris named Reza Shahid, heralds the beginning of an awakening – of spirit and intellect more than body, though there’s some of that too. Nora is immediately taken with the boy. When he is attacked in the schoolyard and his mother, Serina, called in, Nora feels an instant connection with her as well.

Serina represents several facets of Nora’s unfulfilled life. She is a “real artist,” on the cusp of renown; the mother Nora believes she has missed the opportunity to be; and wife to Skandar, whom Nora describes as “pretty much my ideal man.” Serina is bohemian, sexy, passionate, and worldly. Nora’s obsession with her (and the other Shahids) grows after the two women rent a studio space together, Serina to work on an installation called “Wonderland,” inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, while Nora – whose artistic output has withered to virtually nothing – dives into a series of dioramas that depict tormented souls such as Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Edie Sedgwick.

Nora’s preferred method of artistic expression is perfectly apt. She sees her own life in miniature. There is nothing grand about it, and her choice of subjects is an obvious reflection of how she views herself: a tortured and misunderstood artist, whose true self is invisible even to those closest to her. Nora readily admits that fear of attaining exactly what she wanted (a successful art career, marriage, children) has led to her present state of unfulfilled promise and existential angst. Tellingly, she includes a golden figure representing joy hidden among the miniature details in each of her artworks.

The Shahids provide Nora hope of finally grasping that elusive joy. With Reza she is not only a teacher, but a caregiver; with Serina, she is allowed to dip her toe into the life of a working artist; with Skandar (a professor whose area of expertise is the ethics of history), she finds stimulation of her intellect as well as, inevitably, her body.

There is no doubt Messud will garner accolades for her brutally honest portrayal of a kind of everywoman made deliberately vague in her physical description, and imbued with emotions and desires that will resonate powerfully with many readers. Nora is emblematic of the pervasive lack of joy many women experience – and, yes, the anger, too. Not just the solitary women upstairs, but the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters who reach what Messud describes as the “Lucy Jordan moment,” when time catches up to them and they understand all their dreams, all the things they meant to accomplish, will never come to pass.

Likewise, you cannot fault Messud’s prose. Nora’s strong voice carries the novel, and it is marked by a frankness of tone and realistic emotion. Indeed, Messud gives each character, even little Reza, such a distinct voice you can practically hear the accents, though they are written without affectation.

If only the book wasn’t such a slog. At 290 pages, it reads more like 400. Nora, despite her cleverness and interesting voice, is a pathetic character, and after page upon page of her navel-gazing, self-indulgent, late-blooming coming-of-age story (Messud repeatedly refers to the 37-year-old Nora as “middle-aged,” which also rankles), this reader, at least, wanted to tell her to just get on with it. Find your joy, Nora. Don’t rely on someone else to find it for you.


Reviewer: Dory Cerny

Publisher: Knopf Canada


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 288 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-30740-116-8

Released: April

Issue Date: 2013-3

Categories: Fiction: Novels