The Woman Upstairs is Claire Messud’s novel about a single woman, Nora Eldridge who, in her own mind, typifies the literary trope of “the woman upstairs”. Nora is a third grade teacher in Boston. She lives alone, and has a very narrow social circle. Nora has spent years helping her father care for her dying mother, and now helps out her elderly father.
Nora fancies herself an artist, although she has little to show for her pretensions. Her major work is a miniature version of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. She obsesses over each detail. She also plans dioramas of the rooms of other women artists, including Andy Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick.
As a new school year begins, Nora meets the Shahid family. Reza is her pupil. His father, Skandar has come to Cambridge to spend a year as a visiting professor at Harvard. Reza’s mother, Sirena, is an artist who reluctantly accompanies her husband from Paris, where she has been preparing for a show. To continue her work in Boston, Sirena rents a studio and asks Nora to share the space. Nora of course agrees.
And she agrees because she is a doormat, and because she has fallen in love with the entire Shahid family. The way she responds to each of them individually is creepy, particularly Reza. Nora moons a bit too much over the eight year old’s eyes. Yuck! Of course the family takes advantage of her. Nora helps Sirena with her art, while neglecting her own. She also babysits for Reza while his parents pursue the active social life available to university professors.
Of course this odd relationship will take its toll on the characters, particularly on Nora. In a way, Nora is much like the main character in the previous book I reviewed, Rockaway. She wants to be an artist, but is unable to commit to the lifestyle. She uses others as her excuse not to create. She is emotionally stunted and, altogether, a very unpleasant person.
Nora has so few redeeming qualities it was difficult to read this book. She is not at all interesting. She stalks the Shahid family, but they don’t even mind because they are so happy to use her in any way to make their lives easier. What a bunch of losers! I say pass on this book.
Published in hardcover-Knopf-2013
Softcover edition-to be published-Vintage-February 2014