Book Review: The Woman Upstairs



Title: The Woman Upstairs

Author: Claire Messud

Genre: Literary fiction

Length: 253 pages

Library: Carnegie Library of McKeesport

Challenge: Library Books Reading Challenge 2013

Summary: A frustrated third-grade teacher lives vicariously through a new friend, with upsetting results.

Analysis: Nora Eldridge is pissed. Super-nuclear, flown off the handle, !@#$ just got real levels of pissed. And she’s dying to tell the story of how she was grievously wronged by someone she considered a friend. The only problem is, Nora’s not the most reliable of narrators. And when we finally reach the climax of her story–mere pages from the end–the big reveal confirms what we have, sadly, known all along: Nora has nobody to blame for her misfortune except herself.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Life is, after all, a series of learning experiences, and the one Nora has here will, clearly, propel her, at long last, into action. Still, Messud has not given us an easy task as readers: here’s an important story, especially for women with a creative bent, but in the process of parsing it out, you have to deal with a main character who desperately needs a girlfriend who will sit her down and say, “Honey, no.” In all fairness, Messud gives Nora such a friend, but her interventions are so gentle, so resigned, that it’s as if she’s saying, “Even your best friends can’t save you. Ultimately, you have to save yourself.”

So, why is Nora out for blood? She’s fortyish, single, and resigned to a life of teaching art to third-graders–not exactly the brilliant future as a famous artist she’d planned for herself. But instead of making art in her spare time (the way the rest of us with pay-the-bills jobs do), she prefers to stew over what might have been, and blame her problems on everyone else–her parents, the poseurs at art school, etc. Everybody loves Nora to pieces, and nobody has a clue that, under her placid exterior, she’s simmering with rage…except her friend Didi, who is constantly trying to get Nora to take even tiny steps in the direction of her long-suppressed dreams.

Frustrated with Nora yet? Just when you’re ready to hurl the book aside in favor of protagonists with a bit more moxie, new people come into Nora’s life. Sirena, a midlist-famous artist, and her husband and child move in to the area for a one-year stay. The son, Reza, becomes a student in Nora’s class, and Nora develops a friendship with the couple that, at first, seems like a wonderful move. Sirena needs a place to work on her next installation, but studios are expensive. She and Nora decide to rent one together, and for a little while, we see Nora blossom: she’s working on her own art and enjoying the company of people who understand her. But just when you think she’s going to turn it all around, Nora wrecks it with jealousy, and her relationship with the family becomes tangled up in “Single White Female” overtones, just enough to make you question Nora’s sanity, but not enough to put you off the book entirely. On the contrary: now that you can pretty much guess Nora’s going to fall, and hard, you keep reading because you have to know when and where the train wreck will take place.

Messud has given us a brilliant portrait of a frustrated creative here, one that will resonate with women of a certain age who are questioning their own choices, struggling to realize their own dreams. It’s a cautionary tale: nobody wants to be Nora–but, how do you avoid it? Every single one of Nora’s missteps is like a blueprint: do not be this person. Make art, even if you have to stay up all night. If you hate your job, start job-hunting! Quit being jealous of your friends. Get out there and start dating, if you’re lonely. Don’t shut out the people who are trying to help you. And, most importantly, stop trying to live vicariously through others, because it’s better to be a struggling original than a cheap copy. Might hit too close to the bone for some, but that is where good art lives: close to the bone, deep in your marrow.

Recommended for: fans of well-crafted literary fiction; women of a certain age, especially frustrated and practicing creatives; anyone interested in the heroine’s journey; people who groove on unsympathetic/unreliable narrators.


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