Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs


This is a book that required two starts for me. I started it once and was immediately put off by the rage in the opening pages. I started another book, or read a few other books… I don’t remember the exact sequence. Like the “woman upstairs”, I value reasonableness; I am weary of strong emotions. Not that I am myself unemotional far from it, but I am uncomfortable with strong displays of emotions by others. I am often unsure how to respond; and the little voice in my head often says “Oh, please let’s do away with this, and let’s go back to normal”. Again, I am not unemotional, or unempathetic… maybe it is an issue of being too sympathetic, too in-tune with the vibes that come off the other person and without a sense of what generates them, they are too disturbing.

In any case, I did give the book a second chance and became quite enthralled by the drama that unfolded. The book is first-person account of a how the relationships of Nora Eldridge, a third-grade teacher and closet artist, with the family of her students, little Reza, 7-years old, and the son of a professor and a installation artist. Nora becomes infatuated with all members of the family. The author does not use that word “infatuation”, she uses “love” and tries to dissect the source and nature of that love. She does so in disturbing ways, detailing Nora’s descent into a dependence that may no longer have anything to do with love. There is also the examination of nuances of physical attraction and fascination with the other, of the deep satisfaction coming for a look, a smile, a light touch, the slight expression of interest that can so easily morph in to unsated hunger for more of the same, until obsession sets in.

Nora is a single-woman in her late thirties, who was the good girl, good daughter, good teacher, good friend that everyone relies on, in every way reasonable and dependable, what Messud calls the “woman upstairs”. While Nora does not relish what she has becomes, she does not either rebel against it, in a mixture of social conditioning and self-imposed boundaries and rules for living life.

What forces the rage out, in the end, was totally unexpected for me, a deep betrayal of trust that I would not have expected, although there may have been some hints in the narrative. Messud does a good job of negating the possibility of betrayal in the way she portrays Nora’s internal dialogue, her interpretation of the words and actions of others, the complicated mathematics of how she comes to trust so completely… and so mistakenly.

I am now intrigued by Claire Messud’s work as this was my first exposure to it, and I am very curious to see what other people thought of this book. Time to go read the reviews and what other bloggers have said! There is also a reading group guide at the end of the book that I have not looked at yet.


Messud, Claire. The Woman Upstairs. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.


2 responses »

  1. Pingback: A quick review of 2014 | Sylvie's World is a Library

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