The Woman Upstairs
Nearly seven years after the publication of her last novel, Claire Messud returns with The Woman Upstairs, her ferocious new work of fiction.
Messud’s central character is Nora Marie Eldridge, a third-grade teacher at an unexceptional elementary school in Massachusetts. She is the so-called female above of the book’s title, ”the quiet woman at the end of the hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound”.
Born into an ordinary family, Eldridge was a prodigiously talented child who sensed she was destined for greatness in adulthood, only for her promise to falter on her own flaws.
By the time the reader meets Eldridge, she is a wounded and bereft middle-aged animal, strafed with regret, seething with barely concealed self-loathing: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know.”
The author unpacks her narrator’s deep sense of dissatisfaction over large sections of the early chapters: “I’m not crazy,” contests Eldridge. “Angry, yes; crazy, no … I’m forty-two years old … Neither old, nor young. I’m neither fat nor thin, neither pretty nor plain. I’m neither married nor divorced, but single.”
Messud’s prose is blistering, crackling with breathtaking intensity. Waves of bile and wails of frustration wash in with each successive paragraph. “I always thought I’d get farther,” Eldridge tells us, “I’d like to blame the world for what I’ve failed to do, but the failure is all mine.”
The book hinges on the introduction of Reza Shahid, a timid but charming eight-year-old boy, who is a new arrival in Eldridge’s third grade class. Shahid’s command of English is cripplingly poor and he is soon bullied on the school playground and taunted by his all-American classmates for being a “terrorist”. Named after Iran’s deposed shah, Reza is, in fact, the son of Skandar from Lebanon, and Sirena, his Italian mother.
Sirena and Eldridge, parent and teacher, bond over Reza’s wounds and the two women forge an unlikely extra-curricular friendship rooted in art. The former is an emerging European artist, the latter regrets forsaking the dreams of her youth for the terrible and lonely treadmill of convention she now trudges on.
The pair rent studio space in a scruffy former industrial warehouse, Sirena to work on her expansive, career-defining Wonderland art installation, Eldridge to piece together a series of claustrophobic, intricately detailed shoebox-sized dioramas.
When Reza is attacked again, the women’s relationship grows stronger still. Slowly, Eldridge becomes consumed by the “familyness” of the Shahid clan and she simultaneously and jealously falls in love with husband, wife and son.
She shifts between “fantasies of intimacy” and concerns of “bleak rejection” and matters begin to get catastrophically messy. Nothing good can come of Eldridge’s ruinous obsessions, as the book’s devilish denouement bears out.
After a long hiatus, Messud is back and it was worth the wait. The Woman Upstairs is an intoxicating read, even if the anger rarely subsides from its punchy beginning to its dramatic ending.