This novel appeared on several 2013 “best novels” lists and it seems to fit into a genre that’s very popular these days, featuring a narrator whose truthfulness and mental well being are unclear. As I read, I was reminded of novels like The Other Typist and The Dinner, but The Woman Upstairs carves out its own place. The narrator comes across as abrasive yet sympathetic, a flawed human deserving compassion and yet somewhat self-involved, too. This contradiction compelled me to stay with the story and find out what happened to stoke the anger of “the woman upstairs.”
Nora Eldridge is a 42-year-old “woman upstairs” when she begins her reflection on the events of the past four years that have led her to where she is now. She describes a “woman upstairs” as follows:
… it’s not that I’m not in some sense an Underground Woman — aren’t we all, who have to cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked? … In our lives of quiet desperation, the Woman Upstairs is who we are … and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible.
She tells us up front that she is a third grade teacher, with a few close friends and small family; a reliable person who seems innocuous. And she is quite clear about being angry. “I’m not crazy. Angry, yes; crazy, no…. let me assure you that every one of us is capable of rage, and that some of us are prone to it, but that in order to be a good teacher, you must have a modicum of self control, which I do. I have more than a modicum. I was brought up that way.”
What has contributed to this sense of rage in this woman who, by outward appearances, would seem rather average? Nora lays out her life for us, particularly her relationship with her mother and her own frustrated artistic dreams. The fire is lit for Nora when a new student comes to her classroom. Reza Shahid is the beautiful, charming son of Italian artist Sirena and Lebanese academic Skandar. Nora gets to know the family well and feels herself a part of their lives, as important to them as they are to her. Sirena, in particular, as an artist who has had some success with her work and whose life Nora envies, has great impact on Nora and reawakens her artistic impulses.
Messud’s depiction of these two woman as artists and their art is engrossing, even more so once I finished the novel and reread some passages. Sirena’s art installation project, called “Wonderland,” is interactive, requiring the involvement of those who view it. Nora creates realistic dioramas of the rooms of Emily Dickinson, Edie Sedgwick and Alice Neel. Viewers gaze from outside upon the private rooms of these “Women Upstairs”. When Nora reflects on Sirena’s art and her success, she offers this:
… if you’re wondering what could possibly be wrong with being a Purveyor of Dreams — I mean, you could say, isn’t that what Art is for?– you should keep in mind that the desire to be that, to do that — to be the fittest at artistic survival — requires ruthlessness. Maybe that, really, is as good a definition as any of an artist in the world: a ruthless person.
At the end of the novel, I found myself contemplating this idea of ruthlessness and how it fits in with pursuit of one’s own dreams. Skandar advises Nora, “…satisfy your hunger. There’s food all around you, you know?” Throughout the novel, it seems that Nora uses the Shahids and that they use her as well to satisfy whatever needs they have. Nora’s resolution at the end of the novel is powerful, but whether or not it’s appropriate would be a lively topic for a book club discussion.