The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Best known for her penultimate novel – the bestselling 2006 Booker longlisted The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud takes on about-to-be-middle-aged regret with a raw vengeance in this, her fifth and latest title. That her protagonist Nora Eldridge shares the same first name as the discontented heroine in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was certainly not an accidental detail. While Ibsen’s Nora had to abandon her husband and children to find herself, Messud’s Nora is unmarried and childless, yet perhaps because she is so alone, her desperation “at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – before I die to f**king well live” overlaps and echoes Ibsen’s Nora’s “‘sacred … duty to myself.'”
An elementary schoolteacher with sublimated artistic intentions, Nora is the eponymous “woman upstairs”: “We’re not the madwomen in the attic – they get lots of play, one way or another. We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway … and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. … In our lives of quiet desperation, … not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.” At 42, Nora has always been the good “‘teacher/daughter/friend.'” But her years of having to “cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked” end when an exceptionally beautiful 8-year-old boy named Reza Shahid walks into her third-grade classroom.
Among the students with names as diverse as Chastity, Ebullience, Shi-shi, mixed in with the Marks and Noahs, “canonical” Reza is a temporary transplant to Cambridge, Massachusetts from Paris. A violent playground bullying incident ironically provides Nora entree into the lives of Reza’s cosmopolitan parents: she first meets his Italian-born mother, Sirena, an artist just on the verge of worldwide fame; soon thereafter follows Reza’s Lebanese-born father, Skandar, a visiting philosophy scholar at Harvard. Lured by Sirena’s effusively creative ambitions, Nora agrees to share a studio; while Sirena formulates what will become her signature installation which depends heavily on art-and-audience interaction, Nora literally shrinks her own efforts into dollhouse-sized (!) replicas of ‘a room of one’s own’ starting with “Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom,” with eventual plans to move on to tiny spaces for Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel – “the woman artist so fundamentally isolated.”
Over the quickly passing school, once invisible Nora has tumbled down from ‘upstairs’ and ventured onto the main floor, even taking center stage: she matters to Reza who adores her, Sirena who needs her, Skandar who challenges her. She finds herself in adoring love with each member of this enthralling trinity, convinced she is indispensable in their glamorous lives. Boundaries blur, disappointment and betrayal are inevitable. When her “fairy tale” family returns to their faraway world with barely a parting glance, Nora realizes theirs has been a “Fun House” with its “hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world.” And then, what of Nora …?!!
Narrator Cassandra Campbell’s versatility gets a showcase workout, especially when she voices Sirena and Skandar with their impossible-to-label accents. Sirena’s breathy energy is as intoxicating as Nora’s smoldering anger is barely controlled. But Campbell is at her utmost as she seethes and shrieks as Nora’s mother, who warns her young daughter, “‘Don’t ever get yourself stuck like this …'” Sage advice for all, as well.