BOOK REVIEW: 'The Woman Upstairs' is spellbinding

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINELMay 12, 2013 

  • 'THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS'

    by Claire Messud; Knopf ($25.95)

Midway through "The Woman Upstairs," Claire Messud's psychologically acute and deliberately claustrophobic new novel, a character explains to the first-person protagonist how our view of a story is framed by the way it begins.

There's no forgetting how 42-year-old Nora Eldridge starts her account of life as the woman upstairs - that characteristically "quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway" who never makes a sound but is still unspeakably angry.

"I'm a good girl, I'm a nice girl," Nora tells us, as she recounts how she has always done what she was told - deferring her dreams of becoming an artist while tending to her dying mother, her aging father and her career as a third-grade teacher.

Nora is also single, childless, lonely and furious.

"Don't all women feel the same," she asks? "The only difference is how much we know we feel it." Expressly invoking Ralph Ellison as she describes her newfound awareness of her invisibility, Nora sets herself the task of figuring out "how to use that invisibility, to make it burn."

But like the narrator of "Invisible Man" - which also opens at a point after the upcoming story has run its course - Nora first steps back, recounting the events that have stoked her rage.

Unfolding during the 2004-05 school year in Cambridge, Mass., her story revolves around the three Shahids.

Eight-year-old Reza - "a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale" - is one of her students. Skandar teaches the ethics of history. His wife, Sirena, is an artist who creates multimedia installations highlighting the gap between dreams and reality.

That gap - and the price we pay when forgetting that our vision of the world is necessarily partial -is crucial, as the love-starved Nora falls hard for all three Shahids.

Reza allows Nora to imagine herself a mother. Skandar - foreign, sexy, intellectual - is "the sort of man - a grown-up - I would always have thought I could never know." Sirena, with whom she comes to share an art studio, allows Nora to see herself as the artist she has always wanted to be.

How much of Nora's fantasy is true - and to what degree the Shahids must share the blame when it's not - is the real subject of Messud's novel. The writer who comes to mind here is Henry James - with his involuted prose, often unreliable narrators and focus on the disconnect between American innocence and European experience.

But like Emily Dickinson - the predecessor Nora's own art most fully honors - Nora's heightened state also lets her see things others miss. How postmodernism reduces meaning to pastiche and art to fragmented, easily consumed images. How women continually "glimpse freedom too late, at too high a price."

And, in an exquisitely rendered nod to that most Jamesian of themes, how she has failed to fully live because she has been too afraid to die.

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