Every new Claire Messud novel is a reason to rejoice. The Woman Upstairs follows up her superb The Emperor’s Children, which which was set in New York City in late 2011 and was as close to an instant classic as American literature has produced in this century. Her prose is so exquisite and immersive that it can make you forget that you’re sitting at home with a book in your hands.
The Woman Upstairs is the first-person account of Nora Eldridge, a teacher who at age 42 — “which is a lot more like middle age than forty or even forty-one” — has grown fed up with the mundane and materialistic world in which she finds herself trapped. Her artistic ambitions have gone unfulfilled, and her life hasn’t worked out at all how she had hoped. Tell me about it. “What made my obstacles insurmountable, what consigned me to mediocrity,” she explains, “is me, just me.” Her plight elicits empathy, and her palpable disappointment resounds in every sentence.
“It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave to is . . . .” The remainder of that quotation cannot be printed in a family newspaper. Let’s just say Nora is a colorful and fascinating character.
Her life is shaken from its dull moorings when an exceptional boy named Reza Shahid joins her third-grade class. She is immediately smitten. Reza strikes her as “luminous” and as “a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.” His Lebanese father Skandar is visiting the States for a one-year academic fellowship at Harvard, and his Italian mother Sirena is known as an up-and-coming installation artist back in Europe.
Eldridge agrees to share a rented studio space with Sirena, where she returns to making her own art. Her first project in years is a detailed diorama of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. After Reza is called a “terrorist” and attacked by some schoolyard bullies, Eldridge ferries him to the hospital. Shortly after meeting Skandar — who she claims is “pretty much my ideal man” — Eldridge has an erotic dream about him and a little later falls asleep on Christmas night wrapped in some scarves Sirena left behind in the studio. Her vocal self-pitying earns her a dinner invitation and a babysitting gig, which further insinuates herself into Reza’s family life.
While The Woman Upstairs is set in our all-too-real world, something about Messud’s fiction is reminiscent of filmmaker Wes Anderson’s imaginary wonderlands. Maybe it’s the sheen of technical perfection and old-fashioned dedication to craft. As with Anderson’s films — Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums — there are also moments when a sort of privileged preciousness holds sway. All the same, Nora Eldridge has to be one of the richest and most fully human characters to come along in years. She’s also revealed so slowly and painstakingly over these pages, throughout which she appears to be addressing an unnamed audience:
“Just because something is invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. At any given time, there are a host of invisibles floating among us. There are clairvoyants to see ghosts; but who sees the invisible emotions, the unrecorded events? Who is it that sees love, more evanescent than any ghost, let alone can catch it? Who are you to tell me that I don’t know what love is?”
Messud writes with the patience of a saint and that she does so without telegraphing what is to come makes her worthy of serious veneration. The pinnacle of this slow-burning plot comes across as simultaneously shocking and inevitable. As is the case in her novels The Emperor’s Children and The Last Life — a personal favorite about a teenage girl figuring out her place in her family and in the world — these characters and their problems are inseparable from the political and social upheaval around them. The prose here never calls undue attention to itself, and The Woman Upstairs dazzles without outwardly trying. It also solidifies Messud’s place among our greatest contemporary writers.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas “Extraordinary Renditions.”