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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Woman Scorned, 27 May 2013
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Hardcover)
Nora Eldridge, the heroine of Claire Messud's latest novel, narrates her own story in this unsettling tale. Nora is 42 years old and lives alone in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a dutiful daughter, a reliable friend, a good elementary school teacher, and a part-time artist who laments the fact that she has always lacked the courage and opportunity to become a full-time artist. Nora is, she tells us, the Woman Upstairs: " The quiet woman at the end of the third floor hallway who never makes a sound... who, in our lives of quiet desperation, not a soul notices we are furious." And Nora is absolutely fuming.

To explain why she is so angry, Nora moves her story to five years earlier, where we learn how she becomes friendly with the Shahid family, when eight-year-old Reza, a beautiful, angelic-looking child, joins her third grade class. Reza's mother, Sirena, is a sophisticated Italian installation artist; his father, Skandar, is an academic of Lebanese origin, and they have both come from Paris, with Reza, to America for one year as Skandar has a fellowship at Harvard. When Sirena learns that Nora is a fellow artist, she invites her to share the rent on a large studio where Sirena plans to create a new piece of installation art - a project that could bring her the success she has been working towards. Nora, beguiled by the beautiful and worldly Sirena, becomes totally infatuated, not just with Sirena, but with Skandar and Reza too, spending time at the Shahid home babysitting for Reza and working long hours in the studio alongside Sirena. While Sirena works on a huge piece of installation art, Nora, in contrast, creates miniature replicas of the rooms of female artists and writers, such as: Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick. And, as the two women spend more of their time together, Nora feels her life to be entirely transformed - but, as we know from the outset of her story, Nora is in for a very nasty shock.

This novel with its first-person narration, pulls the reader right into Nora's life and into her inner thoughts and imaginings. Slightly reminiscent of Zoe Heller's 'Notes on a Scandal' and with some indirect references to Ibsen's 'A Doll's House', I found this an intelligent and well-written novel, with a sense of unease running throughout the story; however, I do have to say that I did not really care for any of the main characters in the story and, although I had some sympathy for Nora, I found myself becoming rather exasperated with her for her gullibility - but I can' t explain further for fear of including spoilers. That said, the quality of Claire Messud's writing is exceptionally good and her narrative, in many parts, was rather gripping to read. Also, I very much enjoyed the author's descriptions of the high ceilinged, light-filled, L-shaped studio rented by Sirena and Nora and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the pieces of art the two women created. So, all in all, an entertaining, interesting and absorbing, if perhaps not entirely satisfying read; but I should mention that if you like your stories to be peopled with likeable characters who behave well, then this rather unsettling story may not be quite to your taste. Either way, the ending of this tale is likely to make you feel rather uncomfortable and leave you wondering about the possible repercussions for some time after you have turned the last page.
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