From its opening lines, Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs, grips like a choke hold. The most unlikely hero, Nora Eldridge, is an utterly competent and unmarried 42-year-old schoolteacher who self-identifies with scornful wit and rage as the titular Woman Upstairs. ”We’re not the madwoman in the attic — they get lots of play, one way or another,” Nora explains. ”We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound.”
But oh how Messud, whose last novel was the sharp and brilliant Emperor’s Children, gives her woman room to roar. Nora is a frustrated diorama artist in a two-bedroom apartment, her claustrophobic world reduced to caring for her third-grade students and her slowly decaying father. She tends well to others while suppressing any of her own sense of desire or demand. Her orderly life is cracked open when a beautiful boy with long eyelashes walks into her classroom. Nora attaches herself not just to him but to his Italian artist mother, Sirena, and his Lebanese history-professor father, Skandar. Sirena, who invites her to share a studio space, awakens in her an unapologetic lust for life that Nora was previously too good or too scared to claim. The narrative burns toward an inevitable betrayal of startling proportions, one that instead of diminishing Nora lights her ablaze.
This is an exhausting book, sweating with rage, and an exhilarating one. Read it in an openmouthed gulp. After the final powerful paragraphs, in which Nora howls in galvanized fury, throw it down and have a drink, or a dreamless nap. Don’t be surprised if you then pick it back up and start all over again. A