Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I picked up “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud.
Its narrator is Nora Eldridge, a third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She introduces this novel, “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” Nora intended to be an artist. But that has been set aside. At 42, she is a popular teacher, a dutiful daughter, and a dependable friend. She is “the woman upstairs.” And nobody knows how furious she is.
She goes on to tell how five years previous her dreams were reawakened by a remarkable family who entered her life. First the son joins her class, then the mother who is an artist invites her to share space, then the father, a visiting professor, becomes special to her. Each of them possesses a personality that matches Nora’s needs–their jigsaw pieces seem to complete her puzzle. But it doesn’t last, and worse, it leads to betrayal.
Ongoing foreshadowing led me to expect some kind of huge awful explosion. It didn’t happen as I expected, and perhaps that is why this is a strong book. It seems entirely realistic–this earthshaking interior change in Nora, instead of propelling her into a life of art, kindles fury instead. She stokes it because it makes her feel alive.
Messud has mastered choosing and describing key interactions. Nora is aware of feminist aspects of her situation and sees herself enduring dates with duty. Her telling leaves plenty of space for the reader to see more than she does.
The story reads like an extended conversation. It’s tailor made for book groups. I salute Messud for the open ending, a perfect discussion point. I still can’t decide whether it’s hopeless or hopeful. I’ll recommend this to many of my reading friends, and look forward to extending the conversation with them.