"I’ve finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House,” says Nora Marie Eldridge, the woman upstairs in Claire Messud’s latest novel, but it’s clear that her life is anything but fun. Nora is an unhappy, unsatisfied, unattached 42-year-old teacher and amateur artist, who informs us about a tumultuous year in which she obsesses over a new family in her life, which causes her to become a bit unhinged in the process.
Messud has skillfully written “The Woman Upstairs” in a first-person voice that places us deep into the narrator’s anxieties. Nora tells us she was born in 1967, she has an older brother, and her mother recently died after a long illness. Nora’s sorry social life centers on occasional nights out with her college friend Didi, as well as depressing visits with her father and her Aunt Baby — who, as Nora tells us, with Messud’s great descriptive powers, “looked like my dead grandfather in drag, had sparse white hair voluminously flossed to mask her scalp, and a scratchy deep voice.”
At the beginning of a new school year, 9-year-old Reza Shahid enters Nora’s classroom in Cambridge, Mass., and immediately life changes for Nora. Reza captivates her as no child has done before. Nora soon meets Reza’s mother, Sirena, an artist who was born in Italy and temporarily left her flourishing career in Paris. She is now adrift in Cambridge, but Nora and Sirena hit it off immediately. And then Nora meets Sirena’s handsome Lebanese husband, Skandar, a professor of ethics on fellowship at Harvard and the reason the Shahid family is in town for the year.
It doesn’t take long for Nora to become a part of the family. She baby-sits for Reza; she rents studio space with Sirena and assists her with art projects; she gets to know Skandar as he walks Nora home after baby-sitting. Soon she is enamored of all of them: “When I was with Sirena, or Reza, or Skandar, the air moved differently between us; time passed differently; words or gestures meant more than themselves.” In the end, however, and not surprisingly, things do not go well.
It is difficult for the reader to gain much sympathy for any of the characters in “The Woman Upstairs,” which may have been Messud’s intent. Reza is not examined fully; Sirena is a bit narcissistic; Skandar is depicted somewhat one-dimensionally; the personalities of both parents are a little stereotyped (the self-obsessed artist; the famous, seducer-of-women, foreign-born professor); and Nora uses the f-word more than most third-grade teachers. Despite these untrustworthy characters, “The Woman Upstairs” is a pleasure to read because Claire Messud is such a smart writer (who can, for example, make the word “grin” more ominous than one can imagine as she relates Nora’s description of her mother). Seeing the world through Nora’s eyes also provides a broader warning to us as we enter her confused mind: “Does Being Happy simply Create More Time, in the way that Being Sad, as we all know, slows time and thickens it, like cornstarch in a sauce?”
Jim Carmin is a National Book Critics Circle member who lives in Portland, Ore.