Book review: The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

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‘A NOVEL was the rendering of an Affair: of one embroilment, one set of embarrassments, one human coil, one psychological progression,” Ford Madox Ford once wrote. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, the story of a woman’s obsession with another family, fits Ford’s definition to a tee.

The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud

Virago, £14.99

Jerome Boyd Maunsell

A spiralling narrative “of an Affair” – really of several affairs – that pulls one on with morbid curiosity, it opens with a blast of full-throated rage. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”

The scathing voice belongs to 42-year-old Nora Eldridge, a single third-grade teacher at an elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, blonde nor brunette, neither pretty nor plain,” Nora once wanted to be an artist. She also wanted children. But other people always came first. With neither family nor dazzling career, she has become what she calls a “woman upstairs”: unremarkable, unnoticed, seething with fury and a rich internal life.

Nora experiences an awakening when a new pupil, Reza Shahid, joins her class and through him she meets his parents, expatriates who are spending a year in America. Skandar, a Lebanese academic on a fellowship at Harvard, is writing a book on ethics and history; Sirena, his wife, is an Italian installation artist. Nora becomes involved with each of the family members: babysitting Reza, sharing a studio with Sirena, and going on long walks with Skandar, her fascination with them all shading into one-sided infatuation.

With Reza, Nora glimpses the experience of motherhood denied her; Skandar, in scintillating talks, opens her up intellectually and, after she dreams of him making love to her, sexually; Sirena gives her a chance to become a “real” artist. Nora makes a series of miniature replicas of artists’ rooms, beginning with Emily Dickinson, while Sirena builds a sprawling installation, Wonderland, out of household items, rather like Tomoko Takahashi, say, or Sarah Sze.

The early scenes, heavy with foreshadowing of crisis, recall the foreboding of Zoë Heller’s Notes On A Scandal. What unfolds is more abstract, as Nora awakens. Her voice broadens; and her digressions – on the actualisation of dreams and fantasies; the ruthlessness of being an artist; the invisible life of the emotions – are wonderful. The presiding spirit is, perhaps, Henry James, whose so-called “vampire theme” is recapitulated, as Nora preys on, and is engulfed by, the Shahids.

The writing is gorgeous, subtle, defamiliarising, catching peculiar aspects of the hyper-self-conscious 21st-century American life in which Nora, terrifyingly, finds herself lost. But the plot is strained and at times wobbles. The situation into which Nora is drawn falls one degree short of plausibility or real import; it is also a little skewed and unnatural. Art is nearly everything here, and the focus is constricting.

Nora’s tale is, however, universal in its longing and disenchantment. In another James­ian echo (The Ambassadors), Skandar asks Nora what she wants. “Life,” she replies ardently. “All of it. Everything. I don’t want to miss it. I don’t want the prison doors to close.” But the tragedy for Nora is her lingering sense that the doors are already half-shut. «