The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud


The title refers to women who become invisible as they live carefully, fulfilling their obligations, putting the needs of others before their own. In a superficial way this book has a connection with Barbara Pym's Excellent Women the much admired (except by me) book centered on British women characterized as spinsters who live a circumscribed life, helping others, and wearing frumpy brown clothes. Barbara Pym had a different approach to the issue, but the connection is there.

This particular woman upstairs is seething in anger at having made the choices she did. Her mother made similar choices and the irony is that because the narrator Nora cared for her mother through her long illness she became an elementary school teacher rather than pursuing her art. She tells us she was tricked into being a good girl and she is furious because she couldn't figure out how to get out of the "hall of mirrors," find an exit to escape to what she might define as real life. The story she tells us occurs over the course of a school term when she is in her late thirties when she thought she found that exit, but of course she had been tricked again. 

Little Reza Shahid showed up in her third grade classroom and while others were merely charmed by him, Nora fell in love with this little boy.  Then his mother Sirena came into her life, offering to share an art studio and friendship. And finally she fell in love with the third member of the family, the father, Skandar. She began to think of herself as a mother to Reza, an art partner and friend/potential lover to Sirena, and a friend and more to Skandar. She thought these talented and charming people would change her life and when they didn't, she felt betrayed. When she learns several years later of a further betrayal, she is apoplectic and vows she will "set the world on fire. I just might." Nora tells the story looking back on this time, so in the telling we know that she was delusional before we know the specifics. 

Nora is an unappealing and unreliable witness, wrapped up in the "reality" she creates for herself. Though she had the ability to succeed in the endeavors she took on, she tired of each one. She was very successful in the business world, she nearly married an idealized man, she became a loved and successful teacher. Her anger at herself for her choices and later at the glamorous and sophisticated family she loved might move her to set the world on fire, but she acknowledges she might go back to teaching third grade. I found her anger more wearying than enlightening.

Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 253 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.



  • In trying to sort out what Messud wanted to leave us with I continue to struggle. On one hand my reaction while reading the book was that women have little satisfaction in care-giving roles because those roles are so undervalued and that is the tragedy of “liberation” — that we agreed that we were liberated if we could be more like men rather than that men should be like us. Or perhaps she tells us that Nora’s righteous anger rises from thinking she did the “right” thing rather than what she might have done as a man, that is, put her own needs as an artist at the forefront. If the latter is the case, why is Nora delusional and why is there no indication of her artistic ability?
    This is not a good answer to your quandary, I’m afraid. While there is uncertainty and that can mean the topic is worth thinking about. Still, I mostly felt weary.


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