Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 4/30/2013
Buy from IndieBound
Claire Messud’s new novel was headed to my mailbox when internet buzz started to swirl around a Publisher’s Weekly interview that eventually set off a chain reaction of opinions on the author and female writers. Not having read Messud before, but quite anticipating The Woman Upstairs, I was afraid to let all the negativity impact my reading. I grabbed a pair of imaginary blinders and attempted to block out all the back and forth until I was finished reading. It was hard. I was plagued by links, but I think I made it.
Elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge knows how to make other people happy; her students, her dying mother, her ailing father. Yet, she long ago abandoned her dreams of being an artist, the one thing that might have made her happy. When Reza Shahid enters her classroom, Nora’s outlook begins to change. Reza, his mother Sirena, a captivating Italian artist, and father Skander soon begin to take the place of the immediate family Nora never had. While Nora finds herself falling in love with each of the Shahids, her desperate attempts to keep them close will begin to clash with the family’s larger ambitions.
The Woman Upstairs starts with a punch. An angry, gritty rant penned by Nora after the remainder of the book’s events take place. In brilliant language, Messud throws Nora at her readers, setting a perfect stage for the novel to perform on.
“Really I’m angry because I’ve tried so hard to get out of the hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world, or of my world, on the East Coast of the United States of America in the ﬁrst decade of the twenty-ﬁrst century. And behind every mirror is another fucking mirror, and down every corridor is another corridor, and the Fun House isn’t fun anymore and it isn’t even funny, but there doesn’t seem to be a door marked EXIT.”
She then tiptoes back to her life as a teacher and her introduction to Reza. While Messud’s writing is continuously stunning, Nora’s powerful voice retreats through the middle of the book as she details her increasing attachment to each member of the Shahid family.
“What had I done with my time up till now, I had to wonder, and have to wonder now again: Does Being Happy simply Create More Time, in the way that Being Sad, as we all know, slows time and thickens it, like cornstarch in a sauce?”
That slowed time is the drag that weakens the final third of the novel, save for the last few pages. As her happiness begins to shift toward jealously and abandonment, Nora is left to stew in those feelings for a seemingly long time. What might have been empathy for her situation became frustration, as the power of Messud’s introduction to Nora suggested a shattering event that felt like it might never arrive.
But it does. Oh. It. Does. We get that glorious, angry Nora back. And she tears through the last few pages with the fury she detailed in the first, creating a bookend to enclose the sometimes overdrawn sections in the novel’s middle.
Now that I’ve finished The Woman Upstairs, I’m giving myself free reign to dig into the interview controversy…but I’m not quite sure I will. While I imagine there is some interesting dialogue on female authors and how they are treated or viewed, I think there are also many assumptions being made and spread. Though far from perfect, Claire Messud has written a novel full of rich passages and psychological tension you rarely feel in this genre, and that’s what I’m choosing to focus on for now.