Claire Messud has published a new book called The Burning Girl (2017), and was recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine by Ruth Franklin about her proficiency at capturing the interior lives of women. Her second novel, The Woman Upstairs was referenced, and I was immediately hooked by the premise: a middle-aged, elementary school teacher who has all but given up her dreams of becoming an artist becomes entranced and ultimately obsessed with a family whose son enters her class.
The woman is Nora Eldridge, and though she always believed she would become a visual artist, she instead became sidelined by the need to care for her ill mother (dying of ALS) and aging father, as well as her desire to be an independent woman. Thus, no marriage (though she came close) and no children (though she has taught children for a decade). She has become “the woman upstairs,” always reliable, friendly, and never one to make a mess. And also, of no consequence and utterly forgettable.
The opening of the book is electrifying as Nora lets readers in on her interior rage. It becomes immediately clear that the woman Nora truly is and the woman the world knows are nearly opposites. Enter the Shahids: a glamorous, international family of three who are in Cambridge for the year and include Reza, the beautiful, charming son who is in Nora’s class; Skander, the father and husband, a visiting scholar to Harvard, who is Lebanese; and Sirena, mother and wife, who is Italian and–what Nora desires most–an artist.
A chance meeting with Sirena leads to Nora and Sirena sharing an artist’s studio and becoming friends, but with much doubt and uncertainty under the surface. Is Nora seen by Sirena as a fellow artist, or as a family friend who becomes the reliable babysitter for Reza and assistant to Sirena, helping her with her soon-to-be-famous installation? Skandar, who is at first simply Sirena’s husband, becomes compelling to Nora in a different way, as they share an intellectual connection while taking long walks together (ostensibly, Skandar walking Nora home after she babysits for Reza). And Nora views Reza as precious, almost as her own son, and becomes overly involved as he becomes the target of bullying at the school.
Nora realizes that she is in love with each of the Shahids, and knows that she is gradually letting her interior life and emotional attachment unhinge her from her reality. But the excitement she experiences is exhilarating to her; to one who has faithfully served many others besides herself for so long. She begins feeling passion again and working on new art projects; but she also ultimately feels she is in Sirena’s shadow.
The story reaches the climax when the Shahids decamp to Paris and Sirena plans for her art installation at a leading gallery. Though the Shahids’ stay in Cambridge was always temporary, their leaving is no less difficult for Nora. She questions and obsesses over the relationship even as it fades over time, and plans a trip to Paris to see the Shahids years later. What she discovers through seeing Sirena’s finished installation–the project with which she was so involved–is a gut punch to Nora, and yet one that makes perfect sense. The discovery ultimately sets Nora on her course as the book ends.
Though it would seem that books about the interior lives of women are plentiful, such an accurate and searing version of a woman’s life forsaken for others through well-meaning and “good” service is so well-captured in “The Woman Upstairs.” This is the uncensored version of Nora’s interior life; pain, rage, fantasy, and betrayal. The book also has a compelling story arc, and the ending is satisfying as many questions are answered while new questions arise. The book felt very current and also timeless.