The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

15701217Life’s funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true. When you realize that, there’s still so much of a life to get through.

What it’s about: Nora, the self-described “woman upstairs,” leads a life of quiet desperation as a failed artist and third-grade teacher until she meets and becomes obsessed with a family of three for a year.

In the beginning of this novel, the narrator, Nora, announces that she is very angry. This assertive statement up-front set what I thought was the premise for the book, the cause of Nora’s anger and what she does about it. But actually, we don’t learn the cause of her anger until the very end. (I really was waiting for it to come out on every page, which kept me reading, but also peeved me a bit.) Instead, we learn about a family of three that Nora befriends, and how she comes to “fall in love with”–or become obsessed with–each of them. There is the adorable boy who the childless Nora wishes might be her son; the intelligent, handsome husband who the never-been-married Nora wishes might be her husband; and the exotic, beautiful, emerging artist Sirena, who of course Nora wants to be.

The reader spends a lot of time in Nora’s mind, and we get to make up our own minds whether Nora’s obsession is justified. It seemed to me that Nora couldn’t see past her own self-involvement to realize how self-involved her objects of affection were. She misses all the more and more blatant clues that the reader is given, which tell us that these people–at least the two adults, and the child is only an ordinary child, after all–are simply unworthy of the pedestal Nora has put them on. In fact, the most rational character in the novel is Nora’s friend Didi, and if I were to reread this, I would pay close attention to everything she says, because she speaks the truth. Yes, I did recognize a little of myself in Nora, and it was an uncomfortable feeling. I’m in my early 40’s, and I know that there are things I’ll probably never do in my life, things I might have dreamed of doing when I was younger. But Nora isn’t just resigning herself to some of the uncomfortable truths of growing older; she isn’t taking responsibility for her life in any way, large or small, but looking for somebody–anybody–to come and rescue her.

What I liked about it: Although I occasionally grew impatient with the narrator’s voice and with waiting for something to happen, this book did make me think quite a bit about Nora’s choices and about how women often feel constrained for taking responsibility for their own lives. The Woman Upstairs is not exactly my kind of book, but it is a book worth reading nevertheless.

Who might like it: Readers who enjoy books about women that are not chick-lit, similar to the novels of Margaret Atwood.

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