From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor's Children, a masterly new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed and betrayed by a desire for a world beyond her own.Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long ago compromised her dream to be a successful artist, mother and lover. Read more...
From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor's Children, a masterly new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed and betrayed by a desire for a world beyond her own.Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long ago compromised her dream to be a successful artist, mother and lover. She has instead become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and neighbor always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her life arrives the glamorous and cosmopolitan Shahids--her new student Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale, and his parents: Skandar, a dashing Lebanese professor who has come to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard, and Sirena, an effortlessly alluring Italian artist. When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies, Nora is drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family; she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora's happiness explodes her boundaries, and she discovers in herself an unprecedented ferocity--one that puts her beliefs and her sense of self at stake. Told with urgency, intimacy and piercing emotion, this brilliant novel of passion and artistic fulfillment explores the intensity, thrill--and the devastating cost--of embracing an authentic life.
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Creative passions reawakened
Nora Marie Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s taut and psychologically astute fourth novel, is an angry woman, a fact she reveals in its first paragraph. For her, “to be furious, murderously furious, is to be alive.” Over the course of the story, Messud excavates the roots of that anger with sure-handed patience, creating a complex narrative that painstakingly interweaves themes of obsessive love, feminism, creativity and the nature of art.
Putting aside her dreams of an artistic career, unmarried and childless Nora has settled, in her late 30s, into a pedestrian life as a third-grade teacher in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, public school. Her outwardly placid routine is upended when Reza Shahid, the son of a Lebanese father and an Italian mother spending the academic year in Boston, arrives from Paris and enters the class. Nora’s affection for the 8-year-old boy deepens when he’s victimized by playground bullies, but that’s nothing compared to the intensity of feeling that surfaces when she discovers his faintly exotic mother, Sirena, is an accomplished artist.
The two women’s decision to rent a shared space where Nora can work on dioramas featuring Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, the troubled artist Alice Neel and Andy Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, while Sirena constructs a career-defining installation based on Alice in Wonderland, both strengthens and complicates their relationship. That web becomes more tangled when Nora senses her growing fascination with Sirena’s husband, Skandar. Nora’s account of these multiple attractions slowly reveals how she is transformed by the role she plays in this intricately choreographed dance.
If there’s any shortcoming to this artful story, it’s that Messud is better at ratcheting up the tension among these characters than she is at resolving it. But through the psyche of its complicated protagonist, The Woman Upstairs effectively raises serious questions about how we come to live the lives we do, and how we respond when our dreams of how those lives might be different are thwarted. When a novelist of Messud’s talent invites us to consider such questions, we can be certain they’re ones worth pondering.