The first chapter of Claire Messud's "The Woman Upstairs" hit me like a letter from an old acquaintance, long out of touch, writing on the brink of a midlife crisis. Wait. Stop. I've got problems of my own, no time for yours. But continuing to read, I was pulled in, wanting to discover what led to this turmoil of identity.
"We're not the madwomen in the attic -- they get lots of play, one way or another. We're the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound. ... We're completely invisible. I thought it wasn't true, or not true of me, but I've learned that I am no different at all. The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn."
"THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS"
By Claire Messud
The narrator introduces herself. "I am not crazy. Angry, yes; crazy, no. My name is Nora Marie Eldridge and I'm 42 years old -- which is a lot more like middle age than 40 or 41. ... Until last summer I taught third grade at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and maybe I'll go back and do it again, I just don't know. Maybe, instead, I'll set the world on fire. I just might."
It is from this vantage that Nora tells her story. The title "The Woman Upstairs" could just as well refer to Nora trapped in her head, and the reader trapped with her, alert to every imagined threat, every slight, every possible enticement.
Nora is not so much angry at the world and its injustice, although that is a problem, but definitely angry with herself for not being braver and becoming the "Great Artist" she was meant to be. She desperately wants someone to see her for herself, and Ms. Messud's account of her search for recognition and release is as tight and vivid as Nora's pent-up passion.
How Nora gets to this point of distress is the subject of the novel (Ms. Messud's fourth and arriving seven years after her break-out best-seller "The Emperor's Children"). Nora's life had changed five years before when a boy named Reza walked into her classroom: "He glows in my mind's eye, 8 years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale." Immediately beguiled by this "luminous boy," Nora becomes enthralled by his cosmopolitan family. His father, Skandar, from Beirut, part Christian and part Muslim, is a visiting professor whose specialty is the ethics of history, and his Italian mother, Sirena, is an installation artist of some renown.
Before the Shahids come into Nora's life, she has been the dutiful daughter, helping her mother through a long and painful death, making weekly visits to tend to her declining father. Her mother's own thwarted dreams were what incited Nora to her aloneness, her independence. "You won't live off pin money, off any man, no matter how much you love him. You won't depend on anyone but yourself. We agreed, right?" Her mother urges her to go to art school only after she gets her B.A. So she'll "be ready for it all." No need to settle for a MRS degree.
So here she is, as the story takes us back, 37 years old, alone, feeling life has passed her by. Then, a bullying incident at school brings Nora and Sirena together, bonding over concern for Reza. But soon the elegant artist, a "real artist," fresh from Paris, invites Nora to share a studio, thus giving Nora a glimpse of what her life could have been, perhaps still could be. It's the stuff that dreams are made of, but is also what sends the dominoes tumbling.
Nora's art project "A Room of One's Own?" is a series of dioramas honoring women (Emily Dickinson's bedroom, with a tiny Emily and a visiting mirage of death; Virginia Woolf putting rocks in her pockets and writing her final note). In contrast, Sirena's "Wonderland" is an environmental forest fantasy, mixing reality and imagination to take the viewer down a rabbit hole of experience.
As Nora lives out her obsession with first one and then another member of this family, she goes down her own rabbit hole. The shared studio space sparks an intimacy with the Shahid family that makes Nora indispensable in their daily lives: as Reza's baby sitter as well as teacher, Sirena's confidant and Skandar's devoted listener and perhaps more. Intense experiences that at once delight and distress her.
This intimacy ultimately leads Nora to a kind of emotional distraction and dependency that upends her life. By turns, she falls in love with the family and with the dreams that they inspire. How this plays out when they abandon her by returning home brings us to the present in Nora's story. Then a reunion and a devastating revelation alter her perspective about everything that has happened, leading the reader to believe that, given her new purchase on the past, Nora might indeed "set the world on fire."
Although this novel feels at first like someone else's crisis that you don't want to deal with, it's really more like the accident you can't help slowing down to look at -- and that makes you determined to be more careful as you drive away.
Mary Rawson is an actor and an acting teacher at Point Park University (email@example.com).