Summer reads

The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud ’87
Deckle Edge, $25.95
Reviewed by Sylvia Brownrigg ’86

In a novel dense with literary references—from Larkin and Chekhov to Carroll and Dickinson—the gifted and intelligent writer Claire Messud creates a taut psycho-logical drama about art and anger, desire and frustration.

The story’s bitter narrator is 37-year-old Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher who once dreamed of becoming an artist but has become trapped in a life of dutiful spinsterdom in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Beneath her calm, benign exterior, Nora is seething: about having had to care for her ailing parents; about the tedium of her job; and, deeply, about being alone. Looking ahead to her imagined solitary end, she predicts, “I’ll just burn, from the inside out, self-immolating like those monks doused in gasoline.”

Nora’s personal and creative captivity seem to end when she encounters the Shahid family, who are in Cambridge for a sabbatical year. In turn, Nora falls in different shades of love with the boy, Reza, who is her student; with his charismatic Italian mother Sirena, herself a successful installation artist; and with the academic husband Skandar, originally from Lebanon.

The complex interweaving of themes of belonging and displacement, betrayal of oneself and betrayal by others, and the fervid search for an authentic life will be familiar to those who know Messud’s prize-winning work. To others, The Woman Upstairs will provide a dark, gripping, and memorable introduction.

Sylvia Brownrigg ’86 is the author of six books of fiction, most recently a novel for middle-grade readers called Kepler’s Dream.