Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud

"We're not the madwomen in the attic—they get lots of play, one way or another. We're the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy...and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are...and not a soul registers that we are furious. We're completely invisible."

So says Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who always dreamed she'd make something special of her life. She had aspirations of being a successful, worldly artist, along with being a wife and mother. Yet instead she's found herself as "the woman upstairs," the person always providing support, encouragement, and praise to those who do achieve, those who live more glamorous lives than she does. But although she has accepted this role, she yearns for something more, she yearns to break out of her dull, perfectly pleasant life.

When the glamorous, cultured Shahid family comes into her life, they begin awakening feelings in Nora she had long since tamped down. She is enchanted by one of her students, young Reza Shahid, who quickly becomes her favorite student as a result of his intelligence, sensitivity, and affection for her. And while she initially finds Reza's father, Skandar, a Lebanese professor working on a fellowship for a year at Harvard, intriguing, it is Reza's mother—the sensually alluring artist Sirena—who utterly dazzles Nora.

Nora finds herself opening like a flower under the light of Sirena's friendship, particularly when the two decide to share studio space. The proximity to Sirena's creativity inspires Nora's own artistic talent to flourish, although she is often simply content to spend time with Sirena without actually doing any work. And as their friendship grows, Sirena's companionship—and her increasing reliance on Nora in many ways—makes Nora finally feel wanted, feel as if she has a purpose. Yet she realizes that the Shahids still view her as a companion and confidante, and they will be able to continue their lives when they return to Paris, and the thought of again being alone frightens and angers Nora.

As her dependence and infatuation with all three of the Shahids grows, so does her frustration with her own life, yet she only can see them as her source of happiness and purpose. She is in love with being needed, with feeling alive, and doesn't want that feeling to end. And as the deadline for the Shahids to leave Massachusetts draws closer, Nora struggles with dramatically fluctuating emotions, and her actions become more impulsive.

We've seen this character so many times before, the woman who felt she was doomed to a boring and uneventful life suddenly being awakened by those around her, and her steadfast need to cling to these feelings rather than face a return to her old life. At times I found her an intriguing character, and at times, her neediness and resentment wearied me. Having seen this type of situation in other books, I wondered if Messud would choose the predictable path for her plot, or cause Nora to become utterly unhinged. I was pleased that the book didn't take all of the twists I expected (and feared), and in fact, Messud threw in a twist at the end that surprised me and left me thinking much as it did Nora.

It's difficult to sustain interest in a story about a vengeful and needy person (except when it's a fantasy) unless the author has the ability to make you feel for the character. While I didn't love this book, I did like it quite a bit. I felt that, for the most part, Messud gave Nora enough layers to keep her interesting (if not wholly sympathetic), and I wondered just where the plot would go. It's an age-old story with not a completely age-old ending.

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