The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud
When I read The Woman Upstairs a few weeks ago (yes, I’m totally behind on my blogging) it was a rainy and dreary week in June where if I remember rightly people were still wearing coats. This is the polar opposite to the current heatwave we are now experiencing and how I am writing this with a fan, set to its highest setting’, pointing directly at me in case I fry alive.
I first discovered The Woman Upstairs during the Christmas and New Year period in a newspaper article where celebrities revealed their books of the year. I noted it down on my ‘books to buy’ list, which is never ending, and purchased it a few months later.
From the first few pages you are dramatically immersed into narrator Nora Elridge’s world. She has what could be said an average life; she’s a successful teacher, a loving daughter and an intelligent woman but from the off she yearns for more. She feels invisible as the world around her screams you must be perfect and have it all. The fact she is not married makes her feel even more translucent. These first few pages are fuelled with anger and hatred but it is Claire Messud’s excellent writing which invites you read more. I would even go as far to say it is one of the best opening pages to a book I’ve read.
However her view of the world and herself changes when a boy named Reza Shahid starts in her class. She develops a dangerous and suffocating relationship with his parents and particularly with his mother Sirena. Sirena is an artist from a cultured and privileged background with lots of influential contacts. They rent an art studio together and begin to spend more and more time working on their projects, Sirena is keen to show her art to the world whereas Nora is very private about hers, a nod to how the world views the characters. Nora grows closer to Sirena and in some instances I almost felt Nora’s infatuation with her was boarding on romantic and lustful.
It’s a book where nothing catastrophic happens, there’s not any stand out disasters, but it’s made up of many plausible actions and feelings. There’s no Hollywood gloss or perfectionism in it, it’s one of the most realistic and honest books I’ve read in a long time. It’s relatable as we have all had people come into our lives who mean so much to us and as swiftly as they entered it they exit leaving a wake of devastation in their place. We pick up the pieces of our shattered lives whilst they walk off into the sunset none the wiser.
The Woman Upstairs I suppose is a nod to The Madwoman in the Attic, a concept I spent many hours dissecting in uni seminars. Maybe Messud’s title is more of a modern day term and reference to the notion that women still feel invisible. I felt as though the book had all the feelings and despair that women had in the nineteenth century yet here she was in the twenty-first century still feeling the same but this time able to demonstrate her frustration without any apologies.
If I’m honest I do feel that the book was almost too grown up for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a book I would like to return to in ten years’ time where I may be able to appreciate its dark beauty more.