NOVEL APPROACH: A life unlived

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First Posted: 5/21/2013

Not everything is always as it seems. That alluring glow could fade into oblivion, taking you with it or, if you are lucky, remain forever. But if you did not take the chance, are you really living after all?

In Claire Messud’s recent novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” readers are entrapped into a world of psychological thrill. At first the novel reads as an unsuspecting story of a woman undergoing a serious mid-life crisis, but soon the novel employs a peculiar cast of characters that bring this tale into full suspense.

Protagonist Nora Eldridge was once a woman defined by her passion for an extraordinary life. Creative and resilient, Nora had the chance to take hold of the world. Unfortunately, one compromise after the next left Nora a bleak shadow of that person, forcing her to spend her present days full of regret.

“I’m angry because I’ve tried so hard to get out of the hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world […]. And behind every mirror is another […] mirror, and down every corridor is another corridor, and the Fun House isn’t fun anymore and it isn’t even funny, but there doesn’t seem to be a door marked EXIT.”

Readers find Nora in Cambridge, Mass., teaching Appleton Elementary students about a world of opportunity that she has all but missed out on. In the middle of her life, she questions nearly every step she has taken. Her days are humdrum and her sense of adventure is dwindling. She is desperate in her attempts to socialize and, without a family to call her own, she begins to fantasize what life might be like if she lived a little.

But Nora’s life is about to be changed forever when she meets the charming and mysterious Shahid family. Nora’s newest student, Reza, is the son of two prominent parents: his father, Lebanese-born Skandar, is a professor, and his mother, Italian-born Sirena, is an artist.

The novel takes readers through several years as Nora gains the trust of the Shahid family and her relationship grows with each of them. There are several aspects in the novel where Nora makes readers flinch, a result of her own insecurity and desperation in now attempting to live after she spent many years in the dark.

As Messud pulls readers further in, we began to see the complicated and obsessive nature of Nora’s love for the Shahid family, something that ultimately becomes destructive. Nevertheless, “The Woman Upstairs” is a haunting work that leaves readers with a twist at the conclusion, making us question our own perception of reality.

‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Clair Messude Rating: W W W V