Nora Marie Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s taut and psychologically astute fourth novel, is an angry woman, a fact she reveals in its first paragraph. For her, “to be furious, murderously furious, is to be alive.” Over the course of the story, Messud excavates the roots of that anger with sure-handed patience, creating a complex narrative that painstakingly interweaves themes of obsessive love, feminism, creativity and the nature of art.
Putting aside her dreams of an artistic career, unmarried and childless Nora has settled, in her late 30s, into a pedestrian life as a third-grade teacher in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, public school. Her outwardly placid routine is upended when Reza Shahid, the son of a Lebanese father and an Italian mother spending the academic year in Boston, arrives from Paris and enters the class. Nora’s affection for the 8-year-old boy deepens when he’s victimized by playground bullies, but that’s nothing compared to the intensity of feeling that surfaces when she discovers his faintly exotic mother, Sirena, is an accomplished artist.
The two women’s decision to rent a shared space where Nora can work on dioramas featuring Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, the troubled artist Alice Neel and Andy Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, while Sirena constructs a career-defining installation based on Alice in Wonderland, both strengthens and complicates their relationship. That web becomes more tangled when Nora senses her growing fascination with Sirena’s husband, Skandar. Nora’s account of these multiple attractions slowly reveals how she is transformed by the role she plays in this intricately choreographed dance.
If there’s any shortcoming to this artful story, it’s that Messud is better at ratcheting up the tension among these characters than she is at resolving it. But through the psyche of its complicated protagonist, The Woman Upstairs effectively raises serious questions about how we come to live the lives we do, and how we respond when our dreams of how those lives might be different are thwarted. When a novelist of Messud’s talent invites us to consider such questions, we can be certain they’re ones worth pondering.