REVIEW: THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, BY CLAIRE MESSUD

book cover

 

 

What is the nature of love? What would an individual do for her art? And what betrayal could transform a person into someone no longer invisible? Someone who could finally and truly live?

In the opening lines of The Woman Upstairs, our protagonist and first person narrator, Nora Eldridge, is expressing her rage. And as she lashes out, she lists all of the traits that make her a good person: she is a good teacher, a daughter who held her dying mother’s hand, a daughter who speaks to her father every day.

She is now a woman looking back at a time in her life. A time that consumed more of her than imaginable, and almost turned her permanently into the woman outside the main action. Someone who is looking on while others succeed; someone who draws her primary sustenance from the crumbs of another family’s table.

The Year of the Shahids was that time for Nora, when she became obsessed with each of them, starting with the son, Reza, a student in her third grade class in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His mother, an artist, and someone Nora would like to emulate, is Sirena: beautiful, talented, and with the ability to draw Nora into her web. Yes, to me, looking on, it feels like a web. But maybe that is just my perception. It does not seem to be Nora’s view. She falls a little bit in love with the husband/father, too: Skandara, a charming intellectual.

She ends up sharing an artist’s studio with Sirena, and becoming a part of the family. Almost. There are times when she sinks into her invisibility again, dependent on the crumbs from their table.

A fascinating tale, one in which we see what happens to Nora during that obsessive year; we watch her afterwards, how she keeps tabs on them after they have returned to Paris, via Google alerts; and then there are the following years when she goes to Paris and sees the famous installation of Wonderland…and is stunned by a finding that will finally unleash her rage.

A truly captivating read that reveals several unlikeable and self-absorbed characters, and even the protagonist is someone you might want to warn about how things will truly play out in the end. But, like most people, she had to learn her own lessons and come to her own realizations. 4.5 stars.