No 712 The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud


Unreliable narrators often tell the best stories and Nora Eldridge, the narrator of The Woman Upstairs, announces her unreliability from the outset.

If you’d told me my own story about someone else, I would have assured you that this person was completely unhinged. Or a child

Tellingly, the book opens with an angry tantrum.

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that…It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave too, is FUCK YOU ALL

We can rest assured then that Nora is angry. Why?
Nora is a 42 year old elementary school teacher in Boston, unremarkable, average, a good daughter, good friend and good teacher but reaching that ‘Lucy Jordan’ moment when time has caught up and the hopes and accomplishments, the dreams for a life as an artist will now never come to pass. She calls herself The Woman Upstairs;

We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound…not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.

Nora is a woman of missed opportunities. Almost married, almost an artist and totally disillusioned by her own cowardice and her circumstance. She is emblematic of a lack of joy in a life whose path has not gone the way that was hoped. Nora has always done what was expected of her, just like her eponymous namesake in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and like Ibsen’s heroine is smart enough to know that she is both victim that circumstance and master of her failures. Is her anger fuelled by these missed opportunities and the part she has played in them? Gradually we discover, it is not.
The bulk of the novel takes place five years earlier when she is drawn into the artistic and glamorous world of the Shahid family – handsome Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, a successful artist and their son Reza, whom Nora teaches. As she becomes friends with the Shahids, her relationship to all three of them gives her hope. Here, at last, is the life she always thought she would experience, with the child she thought she might have. Proximity, she feels, will invite inclusion to their tribe.
She shares a studio space with Sirena, goes for walks and intellectual talks with Shankar and babysits Reza and feels the world opening up to her as she makes her art again and begins to see what could be possible for her thanks to the Shahid’s encouragement. Nora becomes increasingly enraptured by the Shahids and their way of life yet Messud cleverly leaves us in the dark as to what they think of her. The relationships are described in Nora’s obsessive and ruminative voice as she questions every nuance of the friendship. There is something odd about her affections for the family and her fantasies move from being in love with Sirena, to being in love with Skandar to being a mother to Reza. Even Nora knows that these scenarios are unlikely but the Shahids have given her a new way of seeing herself and a new sense of vitality. She is a compelling narrator because of her awareness of how the world sees her yet self- deceiving enough to allow us to question the reality she is describing.

Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Nora questions everything and places importance on often random moments.

It was a thought I made an object, and held on to and turned over and over in my hand, as if it were an amulet, as if it gave meaning to what had come before; and holding on to it changed everything

Nora has a neediness and an insatiable appetite for outside approval that will never fulfil her. She tells Skandar that she is ‘ravenous’ but can’t say for what. The art that the two women create is a reflection of their personalities. Nora is building miniature dioramas of the rooms of famous artists like Edie Sedgwick and Virginia Woolf, so that when she gets a room of her own to make art in, it is telling that all she can make are miniatures of other famous rooms, rather than something of herself. Sirena on the other hand is creating Wonderland, a fantastical space to be inhabited and imbued with meaning by others, the art of the interior versus the art of the exterior. Nora is drowning in the minutiae, creating a mere copy of reality while Sirena is the purveyor of dreams.
As her infatuation with the Shahids grows, she seems disturbingly off-balance, aware she is making more of the relationship than they.

Not only did I want Sirena and Reza and – now, most tangibly – Skandar…but I also wanted Wonderland, I coveted her very imagination, and wished it were mine

Her ‘magic unfolding’ has echoes of The Talented Mr Ripley and the book is part psychological thriller propelled along by the question of what has so enraged Nora. As always in her life, Nora is on the periphery of someone else’s story and it is Sirena’s careless ambition and devotion to her art that creates what Nora sees as a shattering betrayal.

The very fact that I can tell you without blinking that I could kill them – that above all I could kill her – says all that needs to be said. Oh don’t worry, I won’t. I’m harmless. We women Upstairs are that, too. But I could.

The betrayal is effective on several levels, because it calls into question everything that has gone before. Just how close has Nora been with the Shahids? How much of what we have been told is a fantasy created in Nora’s twisted psyche? What part has Nora played in the creation of Sirena’s art? Has she been victim of a more subtle psychological game played by the whole family?
The book ends with another tantrum, with Nora’s rage in full force promising ‘before I die to fucking well live’ but one is left to imagine the consequences of her fateful relationship with the family. This is a riveting book that reminds us of how people create mythologies around themselves to explain the journey of their lives and how identity is shaped from within, from society through the expectations of others. At times, the character of Nora can seem more like a construct, the collection of a series of female stereotypes, but there is something in her story that is easy to relate to. Haven’t we all thought, from time to time, of what might have been? Wondered what we could have been done differently in life? Ultimately, this tale of sex, lies and videotape succeeds by raising questions about the place of women in literature, art and society and about the perils of searching for your own self worth in someone else’s distorted mirror.

I’m off on  my holidays next week to the wilds of the west of Ireland so I haven’t decided yet which Books of Summer I’ll take. The forecast is for rain. Great reading weather!
Read On: iBooks
Number Read: 35
Number Remaining: 711

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

23 Comments Leave a comment

  1. What a great review! I’ve had this on my reading list since it was published last year. It sounds reminiscent of Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking?, which I loved. I also liked your Ripley comparison, and I tend to love books with unreliable narrators in general.


      • This was out last book at Book Club and Notes on a Scandal was mentioned there too.

        Sadly a lot of our members didn’t like the character and so found the book really hard going. It was up to me another member to fight its corner – it really is an admirable book. Maybe difficult to love, because the narrator is such a tricky character, but the themes are important, especially the Art theme, and it’s brave and memorable.


      • She is hard to love Denise, but I still felt for her, particularly at the end. I had a feeling she may have been used a little, but with this kind of narrator it’s hard to know! I could totally understand someone not liking it, but it’s my kind of book.


      • It provoked a lot of discussion. And I did identify with the character, I think it’s a very real phenomenon that artists let their lives slip by being distracted by real life and trying to be good. I did think that there were possibilities for her as well, that she could definitely take her life in a different direction after her realisation.


  2. Great review! I listened to this on audiobook awhile back and loved it–the narrator did an excellent joy of portraying Nora’s seething anger without going over the top.


  3. This is the best review I’ve read about this book. I am definitely intrigued. And happy not to be Nora, by the sounds of it. Have a great vacation! 🙂


  4. Have fun! I would kill to be in Ireland right now. I have always been in love with the country, but I visited Dublin 5 years ago and I left my heart there…


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