The woman upstairs is mad. Not like Mr. Rochester's wife in “Jane Eyre”. No, Nora Eldridge, Claire Messud's narrator in The Woman Upstairs, is mad in a very different way. “How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that”. That's how Nora opens her story, at the age of “forty f***ing two”, as she looks back on the last five years. As a third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts she had grown accustomed to her life as a single woman, a loyal friend, a caring daughter to her aging father. Her mother had warned her before she died not to be dependent on a man, and she had perhaps taken that advice too much to heart, abandoning her dreams of becoming an artist for the security of a teaching job.
And then she falls in love. But not the way you'd expect. It begins with the arrival of a new student in her class, Reza Shahid, son of an Italian mother and a Lebanese father. Nora is taken with his charm and his exoticism, and she is soon drawn to his parents as well. The family seems to possess much that Nora admires and lacks – they are confident, successful, cosmopolitan, larger than life. Soon she is sharing studio space with Reza's mother, herself an aspiring artist, and listening entranced as Reza's father, a visiting professor at Harvard, discusses his theories on ethics and history. She basks in the glow of their attention, and if there are subtle hints that they may not be as devoted to her as she is to them, Nora misses those clues for a long time. Maybe at some point in our lives we've all been seduced by someone who seems possess what we wish we had.
But we know from page one that Nora is angry, and Messud skillfully crafts her evolution from blind adoration to doubt to disillusionment. And her anger, when it comes, is not resigned resentment but a fire-breathing, expletive-laced rage that leaves me with the hope that Nora's days as an artist and a fully realized woman are just beginning.