W ho exactly is “the woman upstairs,” the eponymous narrator and protagonist of Claire Messud’s powerful new psychological thriller?
She is, by inclination, “a good girl . . . a nice girl,” who has always made all A’s, who held her mother’s hand as she died, and “never stole anybody’s boyfriend.”
But as the novel begins, elementary-school teacher Nora Marie Eldridge is having second thoughts about all that conformity and docility. She is angry, she tells us, and she believes other women share her rage.
“We’re all furies,” she asserts, “except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish.”
The woman upstairs, Messud’s narrator suggests, is not to be confused with the proverbial madwoman in the attic who haunted Jane Eyre and became a symbol of feminist literary criticism. Instead, like Thoreau’s masses, she leads a life “of quiet desperation.” She is trapped in a carnival fun house — “life itself” — where appearances are meant to deceive, and exit is impossible.
No question that Messud (author of “The Emperor’s Children” and wife of New Yorker literary critic and Harvard professor James Wood) piles on the metaphors rather profligately in these fierce opening pages. But, for all its nods toward universality, “The Woman Upstairs” is both more and less than a full-on feminist manifesto. Nora Eldridge is not Everywoman, but a very particular woman, still single, lonely, and childless at 42 (her age when the story, told in flashback, begins and ends).
And that is not her only frustration. Though she is a capable schoolteacher and still tinkers with art projects, she deeply regrets never having taken the risks required to be a great artist. She seems mired in mediocrity and routine, in an “opiated husk of a life, the treadmill of the ordinary.” Then her world suddenly opens up. As in a fairy tale, she becomes spellbound by a family that seems to embody what she is missing and to see her as she wishes to be seen.
Her first encounter is with an enchanting 8-year-old boy, Reza Shahid, a newcomer to her Cambridge classroom, who is “bound in his charm and beauty as if in a net.” Through Reza, she meets his equally seductive parents: Skandar, a Lebanese professor visiting Harvard on a fellowship, and Sirena, an Italian artist of some renown whose next installation will be called “Wonderland.” These are magnetic, charismatic people, Parisian residents and citizens of the world who envelop Nora and relieve her emptiness.
To Reza’s mother, Nora feels an especially powerful attraction, akin to romantic infatuation — a sense that she has “no choice but to trust completely.” Sirena soon invites her to share an artists’ studio in Somerville. Much of the novel’s action takes place in that vast, foreboding space in a building “of a bleakness unimaginable,” where Nora smells “the whiff of burning plastic with an undertone of mouse, or rat” and sees “dim, high bulbs shedding light like dust in the corridors.”
That the Shahids are, to some extent, using Nora quickly becomes apparent. But Nora, so frankly needy, is easy prey. She happily agrees to babysit Reza on a regular basis without pay, a somewhat baffling and boundary-crossing arrangement that feeds her illusion that she is among family. On each occasion, Skandar walks her home, a prelude to growing intimacy.
In the studio, Nora busies herself constructing a series of tiny dioramas of artists’ rooms, starting with the reclusive Emily Dickinson. (The project, way too literal, seems doomed to failure.) The prospect of coffee and conversation with Sirena stirs Nora; even in November, she greets “each morning as though it were spring.”
Given her vulnerability, it is no surprise that her sacrifices will mount, until her gains threaten to become losses. She will even abandon her own work to invest anonymous hours helping Sirena complete her installation for a Paris gallery show.
Messud is lavish in her foreshadowing of the mysterious disaster that is looming. At regular intervals, she reminds us that Nora’s love and trust will be betrayed. “The very fact that I can tell you without blinking that I could kill them — that above all I could kill her — says all that needs to be said,” Nora tells us less than a third of the way through the book.
“People have myths about themselves and other people have myths about them that give them a shape or fixity . . . that is maybe false,” Messud told me a few years ago, in an interview about “The Emperor’s Children.”
The power of self-deception is one of the key themes of “The Woman Upstairs.” Nora projects onto the Shahids a lifetime of thwarted hopes. Forget those painstakingly constructed dioramas: Turning these deeply flawed foreigners into fairy-tale saviors is by far Nora’s greatest imaginative feat.
This is not just a novel of real psychological insight. It is also a supremely well-crafted page-turner with a shocker of an ending. Messud lays down hints of tragedy like a trail of bread crumbs — but the place she leads us is a House of Horrors.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.