Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud


Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents–dashing Skandar, a half-Muslim Professor of Ethical History born in Beirut, and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist–have come to America for Skandar to teach at Harvard.

But one afternoon, Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who punch, push and call him a “terrorist,” and Nora is quickly drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family. Soon she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries–until Sirena’s own ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.

Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, this urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill–and the devastating cost–of giving in to one’s passions. The Woman Upstairs is a masterly story of America today, of being a woman and of the exhilarations of love.


So apparently Nora Eldridge, the washed-up 37-year-old schoolteacher-cum-wannabe-artist protagonist of The Woman Upstairs, is unlikeable? So say the many reviewers before me. But reducing her character (or to be frank, any person, fictional or non) to that single word——is wrong. For a plethora of reasons of which two ring out more strongly than the rest: 1. “unlikeable” says more about the reader than the character 2. it malignantly suggests that being unlikeable is abad thing, which implicitly suggests that being likeable is a goodthing, more than a good thing, a very necessary thing, a zenith, self-actualization, state-of-being kind of thing.

This is not ideal. Because as Messud shows us eruditely but still approachably, the striving to be likeable leads to a generation of “women upstairs,” women who will serve you dinner with a smile, go to and from work with due diligence, deny themselves what they want for the sake of others, until finally, maybe at the brink of death, perhaps in a garden of wilted flowers that had of course been dutifully watered yet died nevertheless, they realize their losses in the pursuit of being “likeable,” a quality who is sisters with “deferential” and “diffident” and, worst, “average.”

So for me, hallelujah that Nora Eldridge is unlikeable. Good for her. A more apt and commendable term to describe her ishungry, maybe even rapacious. Many might take it for a stretch, but Nora reminded me of Eleanor, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s horror novel The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor has forsaken herself for others for thirty long years and eventually goes mad because of it. Spurred on by the arrival of the bewitching Shahid family, Nora will become mad too, but of the furious rather than crazy variety.

Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup
of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone
else you will never see your cup of stars again.

That quotation is from The Haunting of Hill House but it could just as well be words from Nora’s mouth at the end of The Woman Upstairs when she gets hungry enough, angry enough, to burst downstairs and tell the world what she wants, cup of stars included. Messud complicates the tableau with tangents into art, family, children. Are women simply deformed children—infantalized into desiring certain things, but lacking the sangfroid, gall, or simple means to attain them? This is a hate-story dressed up as a love-story. For all the sonnets and platitudes dedicated to love’s treasures, it is hate that truly awakens and quickens the mind. Nora’s hatred may make her “unlikeable” to certain readers, but thank goodness for it! Hatred, not love, not desire, definitely not longing, is what finally pushes her to live.

4 out of 5 stars


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