Book review: The Woman Upstairs

Author Claire Messud pens a novel of cerebral melodrama

The Woman Upstairs

Lonely, single female teachers who yearn for emotional connection are fixtures in fiction—from Muriel Sparks’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. To that list we can now add Nora Eldridge, the 42-year-old narrator and protagonist of Claire Messud’s compelling new cerebral melodrama.

Nora, who is 37 when the story begins, teaches third grade in Cambridge, Mass. She’s a self-described “good girl,” a reliable, invisible “woman upstairs” who lives alone and takes pride in never inconveniencing anyone. With middle-age encroaching, however, Nora is a cauldron of rage and self-loathing for always sublimating her needs and artistic aspirations to those of others—foremost, her sick mother whose death meant no one in the world “loved her the most.” Her greatest sense of betrayal, however, stems from her doomed relationship with the cosmopolitan Shahid family newly arrived from Paris: her student, Reza; his mother, the Italian-born installation artist Sirena; and his father, Skandar, a prominent academic now visiting Harvard.

Besotted by the bunch of them, the childless Nora ingratiates herself into the household—babysitting Reza, sharing a studio with Sirena and striking up a friendship with Skandar. Mistaking kindness for intimacy, she constructs a rich, line-crossing fantasy life in which they offer her escape: “I wanted a full and independent engagement with each of them, unrelated to the others,” she recounts. “I needed their family-ness.” It’s not a spoiler to say Nora’s needs aren’t met.

Messud is a sharp, nuanced storyteller, able to compel the reader even when the narrative bogs down. Comparisons to Ibsen’s A Doll House are also heavy-handed—from Nora’s name to her doll-house-size dioramas depicting rooms of famous women artists. Still, Messud’s Nora is an original—a caustic vessel for exploring obsession, dependence, loneliness and creative expression. And while the novel’s resolution is a long time coming, it packs a quiet, shocking, but satisfying wallop.