In Claire Messud’s smoldering new novel, a 37-year-old elementary-school teacher becomes infatuated with a student’s family and experiences a heady awakening. That’s only half the story, though. “The Woman Upstairs” also offers a furious account of betrayal, the true source of which is withheld until the final pages.
In her 20s, Nora Eldridge worked as a Louboutin-clad management consultant. Quitting her job and jilting her fiance to pursue her dreams of being an artist, she wound up nursing her mother through her final days and teaching third grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Time passed.
Now, Nora wears clogs and sleeps with a fake-fur-covered hot-water bottle. Dependable and undemanding, nondescript to the point of invisibility, she has become one of the “women upstairs.” As she confides, “The person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world.”
She glimpses a chance to right this misalignment when Reza Shahid joins her class. Little Reza is a long-lashed charmer and it doesn’t take long for the school bully to clock him. The attack prompts a meeting with Reza’s mother, Sirena, and Nora senses an instant connection. Soon, Sirena, a slyly manipulative installation artist, is inviting her to share a studio.
The Paris-based Shahids epitomize a certain bohemian ideal. Sirena is Italian and her husband, Skandar -- a professor on a yearlong Harvard University fellowship -- is Lebanese. Entranced, Nora tumbles into a greedy, needy romance with each of them independently.
Her afternoons are spent in the studio with Sirena, who is creating an Alice-inspired Wonderland. Several evenings a week, she babysits Reza and indulges her thwarted maternal yearnings. Afterwards, handsome Skandar walks her home the long way.
Is Nora in love with Sirena? She thinks she might be. The other woman’s touch leaves her powerless, and she can’t quite control her voice when she talks about her. She lusts after Sirena’s imagination, too.
Then there’s Skandar, who flatters her with his intellectual chitchat, and who arrives at the studio late one night when his wife is out of town.
While Sirena assembles Wonderland, Nora works on a series of shoebox dioramas depicting the rooms of tortured women artists and muses -- Emily Dickinson, Alice Neel, Edie Sedgwick.
Like those dioramas, Messud crams much into her portrait of Nora’s small life. There are tart meditations on the creative impulse and the artistic ego, on the interplay between reality and fantasy and the often-pitiful limits of human communication.
She delves, too, into some unedifying emotions, from the martyred self-sufficiency of the singleton -- just thinking about it gives Nora “a thrill not unlike a dieter’s pleasure at her gnawing stomach” -- to the intensely physical covetousness the childless sometimes feel for other people’s offspring.
The novel closes five years later. The Shahids are back in Paris and a chance revelation makes Nora’s role in their lives cruelly clear, setting this Everywoman of a certain age ablaze with defiant resolution to finally begin living.
It should be more electrifying. Instead, the claustrophobic melancholy of Nora’s world is so piercingly evoked, you sense that her fury will only isolate her further.
“The Woman Upstairs” is published by Knopf in the U.S. and Virago in the U.K. (253 pages, $25.95, 14.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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