THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS, by Claire Messud
Poor, poor Nora Etheridge, that woman upstairs. You know the one, pleasant, genteel, a good neighbor, always helpful, never demanding, forever single and trapped in a career – teaching art to third graders – that is far below her true talents. Does she complain? Never! She soldiers on bravely, quietly, admirably. Yet she seethes. She’s full or rage and thwarted ambition. Why has the world passed her by? When did all of her youthful dreams turn to dust and then vanish on the gentlest breeze?
Enter the glorious Shahid family – son Reza, her eight-year-old pupil; wife and mother Sirena, also an artist; and brilliant, complex, tortured husband Skandar, all on a leave from their lives in Paris, spending a year in Boston for Skandar’s work. Their beauty and foreignness are terribly alluring. They represent opportunities missed, chances that might yet come, as indeed one does when Sirena suggests that she and Nora rent a large studio space together. This is the spurs Nora needs to focus on her own art, her life apart from teaching and visiting her father, recently a widower. She is lit from within and burns hopelessly with love for all three members of the family. She is taken in, depended upon, trusted, then betrayed. Sirena used her to help with her own vast, complex, formidable art installation that makes her reputation solid in the United States, adding to the success she’s already had in France. Skandar, too, uses her for a brief illicit romantic encounter, and for an on-going subtle flirtation that feeds his ego. Only Reza is without guile, due to his young age, and Nora’s maternal feeling for him stay strong throughout. Then the year is up, the family returns home, Nora is adrift yet carries on. When she takes her own year off and visits there, nothing is the same. Reza is older, not interested in her any more, Skandar is furtive and veiled, Sirena is pleasant yet distant. A visit to the art installation on exhibit unnerves Nora completely, for among all the people filmed by Sirena interacting with the sculpture as part of the overall experience of the piece, there is Nora, captured one night when she was alone in the studio, drunk, in a rowdy mood she thought was hers alone. They knew all along, and said nothing. This, then, was the basis of Skandar’s attraction to her. It was always some collusion between husband and wife, not really an infidelity at all. This dreadful betrayal is what sets Nora free, at last, to really live her own life the ways she wants to.
Nora Etherigde over analyzes everything, she obsesses, she would drive anyone close to her nuts. I think this is Messud’s real message – the woman upstairs runs circles around herself in a closed, hopeless loop, until something power and painful takes her out, exposes her to herself, and puts her on a straight, if not altogether clear line into the future.