Last summer, I read ‘The Last Life‘ by Claire Messud but gave it a mixed review. I had expected a character-driven novel about French-Americans to be something I would really enjoy. However, I didn’t really get on with it and I wanted to try Messud’s latest novel, ‘The Woman Upstairs’, so I could find out whether it was just that particular book which wasn’t for me or her work in general.
As it turns out, I think ‘The Last Life’ was a case of “the wrong story by the right author” or maybe it was “the right story at the wrong time”. Either way, I enjoyed ‘The Woman Upstairs’ much much more. The story is told from the point of view of Nora Eldridge, a teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts who is looking back on the friendship she formed in her late thirties with Sirena and Skandar Shahid, the parents of one of her third-grade pupils, Reza. Sirena and Nora rent a warehouse together so they can both work on their art. However, Nora’s friendship with the Shahids develops into something rather more sinister and obsessive and eventually leads to a betrayal.
Like ‘The Last Life’, the story of ‘The Woman Upstairs’ is a slow-burner and not a great deal happens in terms of actual plot. However, whereas ‘The Last Life’ is a sprawling family saga, ‘The Woman Upstairs’ is a lot more focused. Nora’s voice is the real heart of the book. Approaching middle age unmarried and childless, Nora describes herself as one of “the women upstairs”: “We’re not the madwomen in the attic… We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway”. She is not always a likeable character but Messud’s portrait of her loneliness is very convincing and often unsettling.
Nora’s blazing anger in the opening pages soon calms and the rest of the story is told much more subtly. Sirena and Skandar’s view of Nora is cleverly ambiguous and even Nora’s account of events isn’t always reliable. The real reason behind Nora’s anger isn’t revealed to the reader until the final pages and it’s one of those endings which is particularly shocking especially after the slow pace of the rest of the story.
Overall, ‘The Woman Upstairs’ is an intense and provocative read and for me, this was the right book at the right time. It is unlikely that I will revisit ‘The Last Life’ any time soon but I would be interested in hearing what you thought of ‘The Emperor’s Children’ if you have read it.