The Woman Upstairs

(2013)

Nora Eldridge dwells upon what she perceives as her unhappy, spinster life while she grieves the death of her beloved mother and teaches third grade at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the woman upstairs in Claire Messud's "The Woman Upstairs."  The title of the book is actually a metaphor for a type of woman who, though she could live anywhere, is always there when you need her and is always there to help.  She is forever kind, quiet, tidy, trusting, dependable, and agreeable.  The woman upstairs is predictable and rarely deviates from the staleness of her routine.  Such a woman describes Miss Eldridge.   

When a young boy named Reza Shahid joins the third grade, his teacher is instantly under the spell of his charm and comes to think of him as the child she never had.  Ultimately, Nora is introduced to Reza's Italian mother Sirena.  The two women from different cultures embark upon a friendship cemented by their mutual love of the arts.  Together, they rent a studio where they are free to explore their artistic interests and feed what is missing in their lives.  For Nora, the "family affair" is complete when Sirena's husband Skandar enters the equation.  The Lebanese professor has brought his family from Paris for the school year while he conducts research at Harvard.    

The third floor art studio offers another translation for "the woman upstairs", and much of the story unfolds in this work space that comes alive with color, music, and light.  Nora comes to depend on the family to give her own life purpose and meaning when they make her feel interesting and important.  However, the fantasy she creates threatens to destroy the true version of her life as well as her glorified friendship with the Shahids.     

A secondary thread to the story is the life of Nora's mother.  While Nora admired her, she also pitied her for a failure to realize her own dreams due to more traditional life choices.  Through the subsequent relationship with her father after her mother's death, the daughter comes to understand her mother more clearly as a person who could still teach her some valuable life lessons. 

The strength of the story is in the telling.  Messud is a lyrical writer. She creates a story that is spellbinding and irresistible in an eerie way.  She does a masterful job exposing the raw emotions of Nora's character and making her loneliness palpable.  However, the weakness of the story is also in the telling.  The author's expression of the raw emotions is at times heavy, overwhelming, and redundant.  

According to Messud, the "woman upstairs" is also invisible and does not make mistakes.  However, Nora Eldridge is determined to make herself visible to the Shahids, and in the process, she makes some unforgettable mistakes.         

 

 

        

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