Wow, what a novel! Rarely have I read such an emotionally charged, foreboding book. A truly gripping tale, seething with rage. The Woman Upstairs is the story of single, 42 year-old Nora Eldridge, ‘the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway’, a kind, dutiful primary school teacher who has put aside her artistic ambitions to care for her sick elderly parents. A woman who, in her own words, obediently eats all the greens while the ice cream for dessert slowly melts away. Enter the Lebanese-Italian Shahid family. The family of Nora’s dreams: Reza the beautiful, charming child, Skandar the handsome, intelligent husband and Sirena the glamorous, successful artist wife…
Slowly, the lives of Nora and the Shahid family intertwine, providing fertile ground for a destructive obsession. Eight-year-old Reza joins Nora’s class, Nora and Sirena start sharing an artist studio, Nora agrees to babysit Reza and to assist Sirena with her art project. But, as we discover, Nora and the Shahids want very different things from their friendship.
Nora becomes obsessed with the Shahid family; she falls in love with them as individuals, and as an idea of perfection, sophistication and success. Thanks to Sirena, her dormant artistic talent is revived.
But you see, my dream in my head of being an artist, and my dream in the world of being an artist, I couldn’t – until Sirena, I couldn’t – connect them.
She resumes her work on miniature replicas of the rooms of Virginia Wolf, Alice Neel, Emily Dickinson and Edie Sedgwick, women whose troubled lives were marred by loneliness and abandonment. Sirena, meanwhile, produces a life-sized model of C.S. Lewis’ Wonderland. The more obsessed and entangled Nora becomes with the Shahid family, the more intensely she works on her art. In an almost drunken state of happiness, she blossoms.
I woke up earlier, more refreshed. I had more energy; my mind moved more clearly, more quickly. I caught no colds, I had no aches, I was luckier…
The Woman Upstairs is a classic example of an unreliable narrator; Nora’s version of events is all we’ve got. At times, she feels the Shahids abandon her, but we are never quite sure if it’s Nora being needy or the Shahids being indifferent. Whenever she feels dumped, Sirena or Skandar throws her a new morsel of hope, a phone call, a dinner invitation, fuelling her belief that she is as special to them, as they are to her. The reader too starts to wonder. Has she completely lost it? Do the Shahids understand what she feels for them? Or are they simply taking advantage of her? Only at the very end, in a surprising and brilliant twist, do we get the answer.
At the surface, The Woman Upstairs is a tale about loneliness, obsession, betrayal and unrequited love, but at its heart are profound issues around what it is to be a woman, the expectations of a family and a career, the role as carer for elderly parents, the sacrifices involved, the conflicting message of feminism and the expectation of being a good girl.
I was mesmerised by The Woman Upstairs. I suspect more women than men will be drawn to this book, which would be a shame. It gives a fascinating insight into the mind of a seemingly normal woman; a woman whose bad luck and loneliness we can all empathise with. Or as Nora herself puts it: a woman who spent too much time on the first exam question, leaving no time for the last.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud is published by Virago, 304 pages.