Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 320 pages; 2013.
While stories about angry men are a dime-a-dozen, it’s not often we get to read about angry women — and for that reason alone Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs stands out from the crowd. The protagonist, Nora Eldridge, is one of those people that has always done the right thing by everyone but now, 42, single and with no dependents, she’s beginning to wonder what good it did her. Instead of pursuing her dream to become a full-time artist, she’s settled for a life as an elementary school teacher — and this is now eating away at her.
But she is shaken out of her ennui by the arrival of a new student, eight-year-old Reza Shahid, whom she develops very fond feelings for, almost as if he was the son she never had. Before long she is enthral to his equally beguiling parents — Skandar, an academic from Lebanon, and Sirena, an installation artist from Italy — whom have moved from Paris to Massachusetts for a year. Together, Nora and Sirena agree to co-rent an artists’ studio so that they can work on their individual projects, and at last it seems as if Nora can finally pursue her real passion.
The story is narrated five years after the arrival of the Shahids and it’s clear that much of Nora’s latent anger results from them. But what is it about this family, with whom she was so infatuated, that has left her feeling so used and betrayed? The reason isn’t for me to share here — you’ll have to read the book to find out — but let’s just say I didn’t truly understand the fuss.
But that’s kind of how I felt about this story in general — it features great character development, and there’s plenty of momentum in the narrative to keep one turning the pages, but I just didn’t care about any of these people — not the angelic boy, not the patronising academic, not the cool and detached Italian artist and especially not the contrary, self-pitying narrator at its heart. It’s an entertaining enough read — and thought-provoking, too — and yet, despite expecting to strongly identify with Nora (I’m of a similar age), I found her immensely infuriating and whiny.
I think Messud’s greatest achievement is in provoking such a strong response in the reader, for it’s not very often that I dislike a character so strongly. The thing I’ve been mulling over ever since is this: is Nora a victim or just very good at making bad decisions?
The Woman Upstairs was longlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize.