I read Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl whilst on holiday in Florida last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have been keen to read the rest of her oeuvre ever since, and picked up her fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, which was first published in 2013.
Lionel Shriver, an author whose work I very much admire, writes that ‘Messud’s prose is a delight… addictive, memorable, intense.’ Of this novel, the Sunday Times reflects that protagonist Nora is ‘a clear-eyed and fiercely self-critical narrator… It’s beautiful, and it’s moving, and it feels true.’ The Economist declares that ‘Rage and sorrow burn so fiercely off the pages of this novel… this is Nora’s conversation with herself, as she spins on a “mental gerbil wheel”, trying to comprehend a betrayal so foul it continues to unsettle long after the last page is turned.’ The Guardian writes ‘Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling’.
Nora Eldridge is the protagonist and narrator of The Woman Upstairs. She is a forty-two-year-old woman who says of herself: ‘I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend…’. She is a former third grade teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the reflections which she makes upon a pivotal meeting and subsequent friendship in her life, this is the position which she holds. Of her career, which she moves away from in the present day part of the story, she muses: ‘… and maybe I’ll go back and do it again, I just don’t know. Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might.’
It is when a young boy named Reza Shahid joins her class, whilst his academic father is undertaking a year at Harvard from his post at a Paris University, that things begin to change for Nora. ‘It all started with the boy,’ begins chapter two. ‘With Reza. Even when I saw him last – for the last time ever – this summer, when he was and had been for years no longer the same, almost a young man, with the illogical proportions, the long nose, the pimples and cracking voice of incipient adulthood, I still saw in him the perfection that was. He glows in my mind’s eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.’ She goes on, in quite striking prose, to describe the spell which he soon casts over children and staff alike: ‘Exceptional. Adaptable. Compassionate. Generous. So intelligent. So quick. So sweet. With such a sense of humor. What did any of our praise mean, but that we’d all fallen in love with him, a bit, and were dazzled?’ Nora soon has the opportunity to meet Reza’s parents, Skandar and Sirena, and soon becomes obsessed with the whole family.
I was immediately pulled in. Nora’s narrative voice feels authentic from the first page, and she is a highly engaging narrator throughout, unusual in her viewpoints and outlooks. Messud uses language in markedly interesting ways, and she creates such depth in Nora. The Woman Upstairs is candid and darkly funny, with a realistic cast of flawed characters. Messud presents a brooding and memorable reflection upon friendship and family, and the things which we really need in life. By the end of this unpredictable and surprising novel, I felt that I knew Nora intimately. In every respect, The Woman Upstairs is a wonderful and powerful novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.