Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsIn The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, the “Fun House” was not fun.  “The floors buckled or they lurched…horns blared” and the mirrors distorted in one way or another, but you were supposed to enjoy it.  Now, 42-year-old Nora has come to realize that life itself is the Fun House, and that the exit doors only lead to more Fun House and never to reality.

Nora admittedly is “starving” for real life, and now suffers from a rage and self realization that she’s been neither this nor that. In her late 30s, a family comes into her quiet life as an elementary school teacher and stirs up all her former dreams, hopes and fantasies.  There is Reza, a remarkable 7-year-old boy that all the teachers are instantly drawn to; there is Sirena, an Italian artist on the cusp of fame, and then Skandar, a visiting Lebanese professor.

To each of these individuals, she gives a unique love and devotion while spinning her life around whatever accommodations they might require.   She gives the love and she feels it coming back to her in return, but there is always something to analyze.  There is endless rumination over the significance of each touch and each conversation.  Her obsessive creation of fantasy centers on a false narrative in her head involving each individual as well as her hopes of how specific events might play out.  In the end, however, she is jarred harshly out of her day dreams when she confronts the lie that the previous five years of her life have really been.

The story always seems to be leading to something and with each event, readers are kept wondering “this is it, here it comes.” Then, we arrive.  None of her ramblings could have ever lead her to this stark reality.  Now she is angry.  But how angry? She responds with “You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”  It is with those words that she delves into the story that brought her to this pinnacle of anger and deep self realization.

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