The Rich And Furious Inner Life Of 'The Woman Upstairs'

The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs

by Claire Messud

Hardcover, 272 pages | purchase

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Lionel Shriver is the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin. i i

hide captionLionel Shriver is the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Suki Dhanda/Courtesy Harper
Lionel Shriver is the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Lionel Shriver is the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Suki Dhanda/Courtesy Harper

Claire Messud's new novel is a love story — of an eccentric sort.

At 37, Nora Eldridge is "The Woman Upstairs": "We're not the mad women in the attic," Nora narrates, "they get lots of play. ... We're the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting. ... We're completely invisible." Having squandered her energies caring for her dying mother (and isn't that just what "the woman upstairs" would do?), Nora has nearly given up on her hopes to be an artist. She's just a third-grade teacher with no family of her own in Cambridge, Mass.

Until the beguiling foreign student Reza Shahid joins her class, and Nora becomes captivated by both the boy and his parents. Mother Sirena is an exotic Italian with a fetching accent and a contagious artistic ambition. The father, Skandar, is a seductive Lebanese academic on a visiting stint at Harvard. As Nora and Sirena share an art studio and Nora's life becomes intimately intertwined with the Shahids, "the woman upstairs" finds passion. Her own artwork takes wing.

Nora is in love — with Reza, with Sirena, with Skandar. "If they were a meal, I would have eaten all the courses with equal relish," she rhapsodizes, "each so distinct, and so uniquely flavorful. ... I have to be clear about this, because otherwise you might think that I was fond of a family."

Do the Shahids return the narrator's affections, or are they merely using her for free baby-sitting? Is Nora's entrancement with the parents erotic, or bigger and stranger than sex? Is the narrator deranged?

I'm not telling. Read the book. Which is fantastic — one of those seemingly small stories that so burst with rage and desire that they barely squeeze between hard covers.

The prose is impeccable. A woman's nipples point "in faintly disparate directions like misaligned headlights." Exuding a "powdery malodor," Nora's aunt and father prepare for Catholic Mass "as blameless as lambs and as lifeless as the slaughtered." Skandar drinks "urinously bright mint tea."

Claire Messud writes about happiness, and about infatuation — about love — more convincingly than any author I've encountered in years. She fills a protagonist who is to outward appearances dull with an inner life so rich and furious that you will never again nod hello in the hall to "the woman upstairs" without thinking twice.

Lionel Shriver's next novel, Big Brother, comes out in June.

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