Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs opens with the forty three year old Nora Eldridge describing her rage. Anger at a lifetime of aiming to please others and of diminishing her desires, but more importantly anger that the promises made to her by life – becoming an artist, having a child, attaching to a significant partner – are not realized. As much as she is angry that these promises aren’t realized, she’s angry that she wants them in the first place. Anger that she is relegated to the position of ‘woman upstairs’ (a frequent refrain in the novel) who subsumes her desires and is thought by the outside world to have no desires in the first place.
From this opening of anger the novel wheels back five years to Nora’s first person description of her encounter with the Shahid family – Reza, Sirena and Skandar. Encounter seems too light a word for the intense relationships that unfold between Nora and each member of the family, and Nora and the family as a unit. Pulled together by art Sirena and Nora push one another artistically and in Sirena Nora sees the example of the life she wants and feels entitled to lead. Nora’s love for the family is as much a love for its individual members as it is for the promise of this life that she should be leading, but is continually and perpetually left out.
Jealousy is portrayed with such deft complexity in this novel as it is never named – or only ever fleetingly – as such. For Nora it’s not that she overtly desires and covets (though she does) the particular pieces of the Shahid life, it’s that she has actively rejected the opportunity to have such a life herself – actively chosen not to take it for hope of something more, or better, of deeper, or because she thinks she should.
It is in some ways a slow novel, and at times I found myself losing patience with Nora. I anticipated the climactic revelation of the rage (the explanation for which the opening chapter promises), but it wasn’t until the final chapter that I realized with what urgency I wanted the reasons for her anger to be made clear. It was a gripping final scene and is well worth the slower development of character.