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The Woman Upstairs


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Woman Upstairs,” A Novel by Claire Messud

April 18, 2014

Women’s anger is an uncertain thing. It’s deserved, but sometimes we hold back from expressing it. Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud’s gripping 2013 novel “The Woman Upstairs” has certainly earned her anger. Nora is a school teacher – she teaches third graders – a career she came to after her first career, as an artist, didn’t work out. She’s single and lives alone, and makes enough money to keep a two-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The second bedroom is her studio. Nora has friends, occasional lovers, and she keeps an eye on her widowed father and his sister. As a life, it’s a full and happy one.

Until. One year, a beautiful boy Reza Shahid, half French, half Lebanese, joins Nora’s third-grade class. His mother, Sirena, is an artist and his father Skandar is an academic. Skandar’s work has brought the family to Cambridge for a year. Neither Sirena nor Reza is especially happy to be there. Sirena’s career was about to take off; her work is just starting to be shown in important Paris galleries. Reza is a sweet boy, but he looks different from many of the other children at the school, and he is bullied.

Because of the bullying, Nora gets to know Sirena and Reza. Because Nora falls a little in love with Reza she allows herself and Sirena to cross boundaries that normally she is strict about maintaining: Nora babysits for Reza. She and Sirena decide to share a studio. She accepts invitations to dinner at the Shahids. She feels as if she has joined the family.

Nora makes great progress on her own art – she creates small reproductions of writers’ rooms, starting with Emily Dickinson’s – while the Shahids are in Europe over the Christmas holidays. Then, when Sirena’s project takes off, Nora ignores her own work for weeks to help Sirena. She ends up working as an assistant on Sirena’s project, and even arranges a field trip so that the third-graders can see it. Why is Nora so willing to drop her own work for Sirena’s? Is it because Sirena’s work is really “art,” while Nora’s is just a hobby? Nora struggles with the question, even as she is preoccupied with Sirena’s project.

At the end of this terrific novel the themes of love and betrayal come together in a scene that makes clear to Nora her place in the Shahids’ world, and the world she has created in her imagination. There is blame to go around for what happens, and plenty for Nora to feel angry about. One of the interesting questions the novel raises is who, exactly, has betrayed whom. Nora, though unable to admit it, is an obvious candidate as both. Yet if she is an actor, who is it she has betrayed? It’s a satisfyingly ambiguous ending, even though it’s one that Nora is quite rightly angry about. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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