The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Reviewed by Mia Lipman 

In her dark and deft fourth novel, the much lauded Claire Messud pulls no punches with the voice of Nora Eldridge, a beloved schoolteacher wound up explosively tight. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” she notes by way of introduction, and it’s fair to say things go downhill from there—but Messud’s vivid writing woos us into keeping this bitter pill of a lady company. (The author came by her PEN/Faulkner Award and Booker Prize nominations honestly.)

Having played the “straitlaced” good girl for all of her fortysomething years, Nora anchors her ferocity just beneath the surface, and it takes a family of three to unleash it: the Shahids, whose luminous young son, Reza, “a canonical boy,” captures Nora’s imagination when he enters her third-grade classroom. Reza’s foreignness and poor English charm his teacher, but the other students peg him as a target, and a playground scuffle connects Nora with his mother, Sirena. The two women share an interest in art—Sirena’s professional and thriving, Nora’s amateur and unfulfilled—and soon they also share a studio that becomes Nora’s refuge from everything she resents: failed relationships, dead mother and hypochondriac father, no art degree, no children. Sirena’s academic husband, Skandar, welcomes his wife’s new friend and his son’s “institutrice” with polite intimacy, and the Shahids quickly absorb Nora into their worldly, accomplished family.

But on Messud’s watch, it’s never as easy as all that. Familiarity can breed obsession, and Nora finds herself teetering on the hairline crack between trust and distrust as she digs deeper into her new relationships. Messud is comfortable in claustrophobic spaces, and it’s hard not to follow her into them, flinching, even when we ought to know better.

This sharp, empathetic portrait of a broken woman demands a second glance, then a third, then an entire afternoon. The payoff will leave you reeling.

Knopf, April 2013

ISBN-10: 0307596907

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Mia LipmanMia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.