25 January 2013

The Woman Upstairs; Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Probably not the best book to read on the cusp of a Major Birthday - Nora is going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, dissatisfied with her life (more about the "what might have beens" than the "what is") when the Shahid family enters her life.

Nora (clearly named after Ibsen's heroine) is a very popular third grade teacher in Cambridge and Reza Shahid is a transfer student from Paris (of Palestinian/Lebanese and Italian descent). After a schoolyard bullying incident, his mother Sirena (no, that name's not laden with meaning) comes into Nora's life. She's an installation artist, semi-famous in Paris, and Nora had once had hopes of being an artist so the two of them rent and share a studio. Soon Nora is under Sirena's spell, obsessing about seeing her and racing from work to the studio to spend time together. Girl crush? Latent lesbian orientation emerging? And then there's Skandar, the visiting Harvard lecturer husband whose one year appointment brought them to the US and Nora's life.

"The woman upstairs" is Nora's term for the unmarried, quiet, somewhat forgotten woman that she fears she is. Her desire to become part of the Shahid's life, to turn into the type of artist/intellectual that she once hoped to be, is the driving motivation here. Of course her perception of her importance to the Shahids is skewed, and as always happens in these cases, ends with a deep sense of betrayal.

As I said, not the best book to read on the cusp of a Major Birthday. And this might not appeal to younger adults (those in their 20s/30s), but I can see older women (40s+) finding points of recognition here.

ARC provided by publisher.

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