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Thursday, June 26

The Woman Upstairs, as seen by Claire Messud

I am quick-tempered and get easily annoyed so I felt incredibly good upon reading about the anger in a woman's heart, without turning her into a pitiable or insane creature. A kind of unsympathetic character, a sort of female anti-hero that speaks your mind and language and validates your feelings- this is Nora Eldridge: ""How angry am I? You don't want to know."

The Woman Upstairs hides under our very skin, failing to belong to any particular category or to let herself be labeled. This woman is quiet, smiling, tidy, someone other women fear to become -the embodiment of a latent anger that gets voiced from the very beginning of the novel. Nora Elridge, 42, single, teacher is angry with the world, and the world, shaped as the three members of the Shahid family, remains unresponsive to her annoyance. Her life is pretty boring, revolving around the same unspectacular events: teaching third-graders, meeting her lesbian friends, caring for her old father. No man, no excitement, no guilty pleasures. Still, she is at peace with her slow and plain pace until a boy, with the 'carefully marshalled black curls lapping their uneven shoreline along the smooth, frail promontory of his neck’, named Reza steps from a fairy tale right into her classroom. He has an artist mother and a visiting scholar of a father. Despite the multicultural background of the school where she teaches, Reza becomes the target of a bully and gets hurt, which introduces Sirena, the boy's mother, into the quiet unfolding of events. Chemistry strikes again and Nora finds herself telling this stranger all about her desire to have pursued art instead of having become a school teacher. Giving up on art to take care of her sick mother and on passion to turn to teaching has ruined her bright future of a successful artist with a studio of her own, a husband and three children. The father of the family, Skandar of Lebanon, Beirut, part Christian, part Muslim, a scholar, is the third party Nora falls for. When confronted about her mixed feelings by her lesbian friends, she admits to have been swept off her feet by their foreignness.

Her need for human connection and the feeling of being part of their family get in the way of her sensibility and she keeps feeding her fascination with the Shahids -she babysits for Reza, agrees to share an art studio with Sirena and accepts Skandar's offer to walk her home late at night. Several slippings of poise and maturity catch her unprepared: she somehow starts growing roots into the boy's soul, she gets drunk one night and dressed up as Edie Sedgwick, masturbates on the Astroturf of Sirena's project -an installation made of trash and called Wonderland- and gets intimate with Skandar. The last proof of misconduct is left hanging midair, never to talk about it, never to face. The Shahids return to Paris and life keeps flowing its pace for Nora Eldridge. Still, a woman is willing to share her generosity, her views, her house, her child, yet never anything she does so out of the kindness of her heart. Nora takes something of Sirena's- her husband's ephemeral attention. The author is not very explicit about the nature of Nora and Skandar's relation- it is merely forbidden touches or a total one night stand? We are left wondering, still the darkness and illicit air about it is later revealed when Nora travels to Paris and gets to see the exhibition of Sirena's art installation.

For a moment there, I got fooled by the pretense that women could wrap themselves around their passions and every day singular moments and make it out there, in a reality that keeps reminding us how we fail to adapt to the unwritten rules of the world. For a brief moment, I believed in the grit of a woman that allows her heart to be alive against the obvious path in life. Still, Nora's story went sour and her self-claimed happiness turned to ashes. The Woman Upstairs is as mad as the one downstairs, and gets unleashed just as softly as the one that holds the mirror. Despite her cleverness and being well-cultured, Nora becomes unbelievable to my eyes -partly due to the length of the novel and its lack of action- when she fails to find the genuine joy in things, when she fails to convince me that we can allow ourselves to be defined by the the people around us. She is open about her anxieties and voices her turmoil, yet she is as passive as the next of us, caught into a dangerous romantic fantasy. Despite the character's flaws, there is an inner beauty in Claire Messud's style and gift to observe people and feelings that makes The Woman Upstairs a piece of strangely liberating prose.
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