Verdict: Good, but heavy-handed.
The exciting thing about The Woman Upstairs is the intensity of its protagonist’s anger. Nora is an elementary school teacher and artist manque, who bitterly regrets the opportunities she has given up in her life in the interest of being “a good girl”. Into her life comes the Shahid family: the young son, Reza, is in her class; the mother, Sirena, a video installation artist who befriends Nora; and the father, Skandar, with whom Nora comes to enjoy discussing philosophy and politics. Feeling that she has been brought to life by these new friendships, Nora throws herself into the Shahids’ lives, baby-sitting for Reza and sharing a studio space with Sirena, where they each work on their own art and then, increasingly, more and more just on Sirena’s.
There is, of course, a betrayal coming. The extent to which Nora’s relationships with the Shahids are based in fantasy is not clear. Certainly Nora is projecting an awful lot onto those relationships, and Messud lets the reader sit with that discomfort. Nora of the present day, who narrates the story and looks back on those years with the Shahids, constantly tells us that she knows what we’re thinking, how we’re viewing her.
In a way this makes the uncertainty worse, because we know that we’re probably never ever going to find out what the Shahids thought about all this. Did they truly like her the way she liked them, or were they being kind, or were they using her, or some combination of those things? The uncertainty of this, combined with the certainty that betrayal is heading Nora’s way, infuses the book with (some slightly milder version of) dread. Nora’s describing Pride while acknowledging that she’s in a position from which society demands Humility, so you know that she’s going to pay.
I’ve read some reviews of this book that called it slow-moving which — I guess it is? At least, not a ton of events occur throughout the course of the book, and I am typically the first to complain about not enough events (cf my favorite show on TV right now being The Vampire Diaries on which ONE THOUSAND EVENTS occur every episode). But it didn’t feel slow, I think because Messud does such a good job of creating a sense of dread. You know Nora’s going to pay for the joy she’s experiencing; you just don’t know exactly how.
(I mean, I did. I read the end so I knew exactly how. But I still felt the dread.)
And now for my complaint. The symbolism of this book was, shall we say, a trifle on the nose. Nora’s artist friend, the mother/wife of the Shahid family, whose presence in Nora’s life lures Nora into believing there’s more out there for her, is called Sirena. Nora, meanwhile, has the same name of the protagonist of Ibsen’s The Doll House, an homage that I do not believe needed to be underlined by Nora’s artistic output being — yes! — dollhouses. There was just a lot of stuff like that, stuff that made me feel like Claire Messud did not trust her book to get its message across without slamming you in the face with its resonances.
There were also times at which I could have done without some of the commas. I love commas. You have to put a lot of clauses in a lot of commas before I will complain. Some of Messud’s writing was really lovely and precise:
But as she led me into their apartment, the thought that came unbidden was: Here is someone that I used to love. Or even: Here is someone who resembles, to a large degree but imperfectly, someone that I used to love.
I have felt that feeling before, and it was interesting to have it put into words, but at other times there were too many commas.
HOWEVER: I cannot emphasize enough that I like reading about angry women, and I really really appreciate what Claire Messud was doing in The Woman Upstairs. This is the same reason why I love Jane Eyre and the poetry of June Jordan. Women have a lot to be angry about.