Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Publication Year: 2013
Source: my shelves
Date Completed: July - 2013
Nora Eldridge is "the woman upstairs". She approaching 40, average looking, never married, and she works as a third grade teacher at a school in Boston. Although she has a few friends, she pretty much spends her days at school and her evenings alone in her third floor apartment. She once had dreamed of becoming an artist, but deep down it seems that Nora lacked the confidence to take a chance as an artist. At one point she had a rather high powered consulting job, and she left that job and to become a teacher. She also spent years caring for her mother who died of cancer, and then looking after her aged father.
When 8 year old Reza Shahid becomes one of her students, he makes an impression on Nora. Reza clearly stands out both in dress and manner. He last home was in Paris, but now living in Boston, at least temporarily, while his Lebanese father Skandar, is a professor, on a fellowship at Harvard. As children can often be cruel to other children who seem to stand out from the crowd, Reza becomes the target of bullies. The post 9/11 incident where other children call him names and refer to him as a terrorist, makes Nora want to protect Reza all the more. In fact at times, the role she assumes seems more motherly than teacherly.
When Nora meets Sirena, Reza's beautiful, Italian mother, she learns that she is an up and coming "artist", just like Nora always wanted to be. Nora is immediately drawn to her, and she begins to spend time in a shared studio with Sirena after she encourages Nora to pursue her interest in art. Nora is also drawn to the intelligent and handsome Skandar, Reza's father, and is crazy about their special little boy Reza, who she even offers to babysit for. Deep down Nora resents the seemingly perfect family, their cosmopolitan flair, and the more time she spends with them, the more envious and angry she becomes.
The story is told from Nora's perspective and it is clear that she sees herself stuck in the role of "good daughter", and her life is the product of choices she has made. Yes, she has friends and a decent job, but the arrival of the Shahid's only serves to reinforce what Nora has missed out on. I saw Nora as a woman who was often smiling on the outside, but crying and about to explode on the inside. This was further evidenced in her artwork, where she focused on the rooms inhabited by suicidal and depressed women like Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson.
Overall, I really liked this book, but it was not a quick and easy read for me. The characters are extremely well crafted and believable, and although similar stories have been written in the past, of the ones that I've read, none have been as cleverly plotted as, The Woman Upstairs. I do think that readers who enjoy a lot of action and surprises in what they read might be a bit frustrated or disappointed this novel.