[Book Review] The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs Collage

Writing a book review for a book that leaves you in shambles is a really intimidating task. I think the reason I’ve found it so difficult to write my thoughts on Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs is because the book scared me in a lot of ways. Obviously, it’s not a mystery book and it didn’t leave me wanting to add an extra lock to my door. It more or less scared me in a “I don’t want this scenario to happen to me” way. It’s at this point that I feel I should add a little context, so here goes nothing…

Nora Eldridge is a thirty-seven old woman. She’s an elementary school teacher and she’s really, really angry. Case in point, the first sentence of the book starts with the sentences:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

Of course, you’re automatically intrigued as to why she’s so angry, but Claire Messud isn’t going to give you the punch line right away. She makes you work for it. As you read on, you get to know Nora and you enter her little world. A world that may appear very fulfilling to an outsider, but in truth is filled with loneliness with a mix of despair. Things take a drastic turn when Nora meets the Shahid family. She makes an early connection with Reza, a boy in her class whom gets bullied by his peers. It’s through this horrific act, that Nora meets both Sirena and Skandar. Her connection with Sirena is immediate when they both realize their interested in creating art. Together they decide to open a studio that will allow them both to find their creative voice and escape from parenting (in Sirena’s case) and from all the chaos that surrounds Nora each day at the elementary school.

For the first time, in a long time, Nora starts to escape what she once thought was her inevitable fate of spinsterhood. She now has friends, dinner dates and her relationship with Reza fulfils her want and need to have a child. What was once such a void, has now been filled with what she thinks is happiness. But is happiness defined by filling in the gaps that you think are missing? This is the real question that conjures up for the reader after reading  The Woman Upstairs.

There were many times I found myself feeling bad for Nora. There were times I understood why she chose to supplement a family and become so entwined in their lives. But what happens to her really left me feeling sorry for her. I kept wanting to reach into the pages to tell her that it was going to be okay. I wanted so badly to sit down with her and have a chat and try to help sort through some of her anger. This want and need to help her is what left me so distraught and so incomplete. That being said, I wasn’t dissatisfied with the plot or the ending, I just wanted more. I wanted to know that she was going to heal. Clearly I’m a sucker for an ending that’s tied up in a neat bow.

This was my first time reading Claire Messud, but it definitely won’t be the last. She clearly knows how to develop a character in such an intricate way that the character’s story, their flaws and strengths become personal to the reader. Somehow their story finds a way into your heart in a way that you never see coming, which is solid proof that Claire Messud is a master of her craft.

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