Review: The Woman Upstairs, By Claire Messud

For all its measured, exacting pace, Claire Messud's latest novel is a beautifully sustained howl of rage against life's disappointments

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The Independent Culture

In Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs, Nora Eldridge, 42 when the book opens, is being unceremoniously walloped by life's inevitable and brutally rapid passing.

She's reached that moment when tough realisations are coming home to roost: suddenly she's catching terrifying glimpses of life's limits with increasing frequency. It's looking like she'll never be a famous artist and will never completely achieve her dreams, a reality she's been trying to come to terms with for the past five years: "[T]he age of thirty-seven … is a time of reckoning, the time at which you have to acknowledge once and for all that your life has a shape and a horizon, and that you'll probably never be president, or a millionaire, and that if you're a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way." Taking measure of her carefully built, prudently lived life as a grade-school teacher and a good, reliable friend, daughter and neighbour – an existence driven, in no small part, by her stay-at-home mother's frustrations – Nora finds it disturbingly wanting: "It's a far cry from the tony gatherings in the galleries of New York's Meatpacking District," she notes, "for which you once believed yourself destined …".

To add fuel to the angst-ridden fire, she also notices that she's become invisible to others, irrelevant even – though this realisation does seem to spark a flash of potential future action on her part: "I thought it wasn't true, or not true of me, but I've learned I am no different at all. The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn." As her mother told her: "Life'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."

What crystalises over the taut, tension-lined narrative is a story that holds a deep betrayal at its heart and one that's shaped Nora since her tipping-point-age of 37. It's a story she's determined to own in an empowering and possibly final bid to make her mark: "… if I can just explain, all will be elucidated; and maybe that elucidation alone will prove my greatness, however small. To tell what I know, and how it feels, if I can."

In a tone that ranges from neutral to menacing but never veers from its measured, exacting pace, Nora, an all-too-human and unsettlingly realistic jumble of complexities, confronts her own mediocrity, as well as trying desperately to reject it. She's uncomfortable in her own skin, though she appears otherwise to others. She's chafing against the hand that life dealt her as well as grappling with the looming apprehension that her failures are her own, that she simply didn't channel her talent, her dreams, her ambitions into full fruition. In (nearly) equal measures, she evokes impatience at her tendency towards self-pity, while also generating waves of empathy for her fragility. In Nora, Messud has produced a clear-eyed, unsentimental and compelling portrait of an ordinary person quietly revealing their faults, uncertainties and insecurities, a woman with a big fat question mark in her life, who is ripe for an answer.

When a new boy, eight-year-old Reza Shahid, joins Nora's classroom, she's enamoured by what she perceives to be his physical, emotional and intellectual perfection. When she then meets Reza's glamorously international parents, Skandar, a successful academic, and Sirena, an artist with stellar connections, she falls for each of them in turn, and, deep in the flush of her family-wide crush, exposes even more of her limitations and blind spots. "Watch out," you want to warn her as she immerses herself in the Shahids' quasi-seductive glow. "Be careful!" Sirena, in particular, projects an easy pretentiousness, an alarming level of self-absorption and a casual lack of awareness of others' situations and lives. "For whom," she says airily in my favourite Sirena quote, "is Paris home, really, except the concierges gossiping in their corners?"

Messud is a breathtaking writer – exemplified in the way she brings even the most peripheral characters to life in one swift, all-encompassing stroke – and the pacing of her prose mirrors the discipline that holds Nora together. Wary, vigilant and watchful, without, however, often seeing what's right under her nose, Nora excels at keeping a tight lid on her emotions and reactions, only projecting what she describes as her mother's "tight brightness" at the most telling of moments. This lady's got one terrifically resilient wall of defence. What, you wonder, could possibly topple it?

The Woman Upstairs is, ultimately, a beautiful – and beautifully sustained – howl of fresh, fierce, furious rage. Here's hoping, for Nora Eldridge's sake, that it's a galvanising one as well.