The Woman Upstairs- Claire Messud

Nora Eldridge is a schoolteacher in her early 40s.  She’s never been married and has always been the dutiful daughter, friend, teacher, and neighbor.  She calls herself a “woman upstairs,” the woman who causes no big stir, does what she is expected to, and leaves no mark or impression on the world.  At the distance of 4 or 5 years, she tells us the story of the disruptive year of her life when she meets the Shahid family.  Each Shahid, mother Sirena, father Skandar, and son Reza, allows Nora to explore roles she herself has never taken: the professional artist, the worldly and informed thinker, and the nurturing mother.  Nora becomes consumed with her relationship with the Shahids, obsessing over each little conversation, breaking them down over and over again in her head, much like a teenager in love would.  But Nora is still on the fringe of this family, never as important to them as they are to her.  And she is angry.

Ok, I may have made that sound like Nora goes on a killing spree or something, but no, not really.  Nora is totally caught up in her own head and is too much the dutiful women upstairs for this to be that kind of book.

Nora says she’s angry over and over again and that is what I kept hearing about this book is that it was about a seriously angry woman.  But I don’t know that I really saw Nora acting angry.  She mostly seems desperate and needy.  And unfulfilled.  And full of regrets.  And the Shahids come into her life at the perfect time for her to actually DO something about all this and instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to grow in her own direction, she remains a hanger-on in the life of the Shahids.  She ends up stuck for years in their web, wanting to be them, to feel that sense of importance again.  It takes a betrayal by Sirena for Nora to actually get a picture of how she rates in the Shahids’ world.  And while she claims this betrayal helps end her obsession with the Shahids, it is the motivation for her to tell her story, where she again dwells on every little move in her interactions with the family.

I don’t really know what more to say about this book.  I didn’t love it, but I didn’t dislike it either.  I was interested while reading to see where the story was going and if Nora would actually break out of her woman upstairs role.  But I think this is the sort of book where I would have gotten more out of it if I read it in a book club or in a class or something.  It just didn’t leave a great impression on me, but there are certainly things to discuss and I feel like others’ feedback would have helped me a great deal in processing the book.  As it is, I doubt I will remember much about this book a month from now.  I’d recommend this to those interested in introspective literary fiction.  I don’t know that I am one of those people, necessarily, so this slides by with just an okay rating in my book.