It may well be the first truly feminist (in the best, least didactic sense) novel I have read in ages—the novel, candid about sex and the intricacies of female desire, that Virginia Woolf hoped someone would write, given a room and income of her own … The Woman Upstairs is an extraordinary novel, a psychological suspense story of the highest sort that will leave you thinking about its implications for days afterward. Messud’s skills are all on display here, but they seem to be in the service of a more heartfelt and profound tale than those she has previously told.
It’s exhilarating to encounter such unrestrained vehemence in a work by this controlled, intellectual author. Messud’s previous novels, albeit extraordinarily intelligent and well-crafted, are characterized by rationed or distant emotion. The Woman Upstairs is utterly different — its language urgent, its conflicts outsize and unmooring, its mood incendiary. This psychologically charged story feels like a liberation … In this ingenious, disquieting novel, she has assembled an intricate puzzle of self-belief and self-doubt, showing the peril of seeking your own image in someone else’s distorted mirror — or even, sometimes, in your own.
Nora’s story begins in the aftermath of an emotional trauma. The experience she is about to recount has done for her: no longer is she the woman with tidy trash and a bright smile … This is a novel that seems to want at every point to demonstrate its plausibility. But the pieces of documentary evidence Messud includes...seem heavy-handed, like a compendium of Google searches … So Nora’s still single, and she never got married and never had kids and has only had three dates in four years. But however hard the novel, in its facticity, strives towards plausibility, it’s what makes Nora happy that seems the most impossible.
Claire Messud’s latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, is an incongruous mashup of a very self-consciously literary novel and one of those psychological horror films...in which someone, ominously, is not who she appears to be … To what degree is Nora imposing her own fantasies on her account of her interactions with the Shahid family? Is the story we’re reading a vague approximation of reality or a thoroughly warped vision filtered through the prism of Nora’s unstable psyche? ... Such questions, like the novel’s copious literary allusions, lend Nora’s story a depth lacking in your everyday psychological thriller. But the dense, self-reflexive writing and the willfully commercial plot combine here to create what is, in the end, an intriguing but ungainly Frankenstein monster of a novel.
As Nora Eldridge, the narrator of Claire Messud’s claustrophobically hypnotic new novel would have it, we are all of us surrounded by reservoirs of invisible rage. The Woman Upstairs purports to be the story of one of the ragers, although Nora both does and doesn’t wish to be identified with the archetypal figure in the novel’s title … An air of imminent betrayal hangs over the novel, although it’s hard to see how the Shahids could fail to disappoint Nora, who never really questions her conviction that they are capable of rescuing her and furthermore, have somehow promised to do so.
This may be rage, but it’s fantastically smart rage — anger that never distorts, even in the upper registers...Wherever she digs, she hits rich veins of indignation … Anger provides the heat, but the novel’s real energy comes from its intellectual fuel, its all-consuming analytical drive … Between the heaves of storm, Nora can be an engaging commentator on everything from aesthetics to international relations to aging … Even as that psychological drama races toward a dark climax, Nora seduces us with her piercing assessment of the way young women are acculturated, the way older women are trapped.
The Woman Upstairs updates the dictum of Virginia's Woolf's manifesto: It's not only a little money and a room of one's own that women need to produce art—it's a willingness to use and manipulate other people; it's a capacity for cruelty … The writing in The Woman Upstairs bears little resemblance to Woolf's crystalline prose. Perhaps surprisingly, Ms. Messud's strongest influence here is Philip Roth...Of course, Ms. Messud's unsparingly frank narration comes from a woman, which makes the novel a kind of rejoinder to Mr. Roth's decidedly male-centric universe … It forces itself on you, demands your attention, impresses and irritates. There is a genuine sense of unease in these pages, of something solid being overturned by the sheer force of Nora's rage.
The Woman Upstairs opens with extraordinary heat and momentum … As [Nora’s] infatuation with the Shahids grows, she seems disturbingly off-balance, aware she is making more of the relationship than they … The core of The Woman Upstairs — Messud's intimate portrait of two women artists, Nora, the inhibited American ‘woman upstairs,’ constrained by reality and working in miniature, and Sirena, the European ‘Purveyor of Dreams,’ capable of drawing upon East and West, Then and Now, Imaginary and Real — is brilliant.
In this meticulous and thoroughly engaging novel, Messud traces Nora’s relationship and eventual obsession with the Shahids and poses provocative and cruelly pointed questions about life, love and the meaning of art … As a novel about obsessive love and friendships forged with those we wish to be like, The Woman Upstairs is absolutely satisfying. But it goes much further, becoming a reflection on small and detailed worldviews versus large and generous ones … Like Jane Austen, etching her scrimshaw world in miniature, Messud’s novel is deeply satisfying for its keen detail and insight.
That the Shahids are, to some extent, using Nora quickly becomes apparent. But Nora, so frankly needy, is easy prey … Given her vulnerability, it is no surprise that her sacrifices will mount, until her gains threaten to become losses … The power of self-deception is one of the key themes of The Woman Upstairs. Nora projects onto the Shahids a lifetime of thwarted hopes. Forget those painstakingly constructed dioramas: Turning these deeply flawed foreigners into fairy-tale saviors is by far Nora’s greatest imaginative feat.
Claire Messud's latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, is beautifully written … But the novel also has pretensions of being a ‘social novel’ about the obstacles to women becoming successful artists, and unfortunately, Messud is unable to make this theme rise to the level of her pretty prose … The Shahids enchant Nora into believing desire and creativity are possible after all. Nora remains thwarted though. When Sirena and Nora rent a studio together, Nora gets back to making art – but she makes tiny reproductions of women artists' rooms … The ideas in the novel are important. But a middle-class white ‘woman upstairs’ – single, childless and invisible – is not new territory.
This is one weird book. It should be boring, since surprisingly little happens in it. The narrator, a lonely schoolteacher, should be boring as well. If anyone, it should engage only – one is tempted to say ‘merely’ – female readers. Given its limited parameters, it ought to be a small novel, a minor work. Yet The Woman Upstairs defies all these expectations … Nora is a type, and transcends type by realising type to a tee. Nursing her mother, visiting her ageing father, teaching primary school, always putting aside whatever she might want for herself, she is a model of female dutifulness. Yet, horrifically, her concept of liberation from all this tending and schlepping and coming second is to further enslave herself – to become another family’s dogsbody.
The gifted Messud, writing her way through the ages, has now arrived at a woman in her 40s–and it’s not pretty. Nora Eldridge, a schoolteacher who dreams of being an artist, is angry, cynical, and quietly desperate. Then she meets the Shahid family … As with other Messud characters, these too are hard to love; few would want to know the unpalatable Nora, so full of self-loathing, nor the self-important Shahids.