Claire Messud’s complex and disquieting new novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” is a tale of obsession and violation – dressed in the guise of friendship.
Like Messud’s celebrated “The Emperor’s Children,” it is a book full of contrasts, particularly between perception and reality – but unlike “The Emperor’s Children,” it dwells strictly within the emotional confines of its narrator, Nora Eldridge, a Cambridge, Mass.-based spinster-schoolteacher who would far rather be a full-time artist.
“The Woman Upstairs” is Nora’s story – quiet in the telling, near deafening in its effect, a chronicle of her infatuation with a sophisticated international couple, Skandar and Sirena Shahid and their small son Reza, a “luminous boy” in Nora’s third-grade class.
Yes, this is the Nora who tells us at the outset that, despite her demeanor, she is no sweet schoolteacher. Instead, she is furious. “How angry am I?” she asks. “You don’t want to know.”
In Nora’s universe, she rants, she is one of many seething women “who have to cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked … But the world should understand … that women like us are not underground … We’re always upstairs. We’re not the madwomen in the attic … We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell … and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound … We’re completely invisible … The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn.”
Chilling, no? It is Messud setting the internal stage for a perfect storm of human interaction that will hold our attention to the last word on the last page.
Nora is the triumph here – a woman surprisingly naive for someone engaged in education, especially in Cambridge; a 37-year-old quick to undervalue herself, to set herself up, a willing victim in other words, waiting for life to come to her. So much so, we want to wring her neck. But we don’t. Messud has us in her thrall.
“I always thought I’d live in Paris, Rome, Madrid – at least for a while,” muses Nora (whose late mother called her “Mouse”). “It strikes me now that I didn’t dream of Zanzibar or Papeete or Tashkent: even my fantasy was cautious, a good girl’s fantasy, a blanched almond of a fantasy. Today, even that is enough to clench my fists and curl my toes.”
It is in this fragile and thus dangerous state that Nora meets Sirena and Skandar Shahid, she an Italian artist, up and coming on the international scene; he a Lebanese ethics scholar, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The couple is based in Paris but is in the Boston area for a year, with their small son Reza, who – during his early days at Nora’s school – is roughed up by another boy who calls Reza “a terrorist,” a scene that will repeat itself, adding political relevance to Nora’s tale.
Nora falls in love with Reza – “all perfect promise” – then with his mother, and eventually, his father. Along the way, she agrees to share an art studio with Sirena, and, in time, to serve as a frequent sitter for Reza. Her friends, Didi and Esther, a lesbian couple, are skeptical of all this devotion to the Shahids, Didi referring to Sirena as “the Siren.”
“Tell me,” Didi asks. “What is this actually about, for you?”
Nora tells herself it is about art, her art – miniature creations of rooms for her heroines, Emily Dickinson, Alice Neel, Edie Sedgwick, Virginia Woolf … symbolically (think Nora of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”). Messud’s Nora does everything small – tiny dioramas beside Sirena’s gigantic and overdone installation, “Wonderland.” (Skandar will call Nora’s portion of the studio “the elves’ workshop.”)
Months of a heightened state carry Nora here, her thoughts spoon-fed to us via Messud’s achingly fine prose. We may wish to shake Nora but that does not keep us from caring about her, all the time sensing a very real, unknown menace, one of always knowing Nora is riding for a fall.
Most importantly, we believe that, for Nora, her love of each of the Shahids (she treasures them separately, never as a unit) is her reality. She is palpable to us in this, using her friendship with the Shahids as the measure of her self-worth, her validation, her fulfillment.
“It’s not right to say they made me think more highly of myself; perhaps more accurately, that they allowed me to in their wanting,” she confides at one point. “My lifetime secret certainty of specialness, my precious, hidden specialness, was awakened and fed by them, grew insatiable for them, and feared them, too: feared the power they might wield over me, and simply on account of that fear, almost certainly would.”
Like Stewart O’Nan’s “Emily, Alone,” and some of the novels of Anita Brookner and Alison Lurie, “The Woman Upstairs” dwells on an interior plain where all that really transpires is momentous but out of sight.
Messud, we are told, has fashioned the “rantings” of the furious Nora on those of Dostoevsky’s “The Underground Man.” And yes, Nora rants – but Nora is unreliable. We only have her word here – about everything. She tells us she is furious without showing us – for a very long time.
“I will be continent,” she promises after a predictable Christmas Day with her septuagenarian father and maternal aunt. “I will continue. I will not spill into the lives of others, greedily sucking and wanting and needing. I will not. I will ask nothing, of anyone; I’ll just burn, from the inside out, self-immolating like those monks doused in gasoline.”
The Shahids have gone to Paris for the holidays, Nora unsure whether they will be returning, when she remembers a story from her college days – Chekhov’s “The Black Monk.”
“The black winter of my second year, assailed by doubt at not having gone to art school, I’d read it over and over,” she says, recounting the story “about a man who imagines himself visited by a ghostly monk, with whom he has life’s vital conversations, about creativity, and greatness, and the meaning of existence.
“The monk assures him of his importance, of his exceptional talents. Then he realizes the monk isn’t real; that he himself must be mad. But how much better to be mad in the company of the monk, than to be sane, and constrained in his aspirations, and alone. And mediocre. That, worst of all, is what he has to acknowledge, when his family forces him into clarity: that he’s nothing special at all.”
If this is Nora’s own moment of clarity, it is short-lived, saved for a rainy day (which will come). For the Shahids reappear, sweeping her into their fold once more – a way of Messud preparing us for her novel’s end – the what of it not a surprise, but the how shocking.
There is only a small story here, but a very large picture, all told in Messud’s confident, encompassing prose. When, at last, she gives Nora wings of her own – we can attest to the fact that they are hard-earned. Fly, Nora, fly!
The Woman Upstairs
By Claire Messud
253 pages, $25.95
Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.