The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

the woman upstairs

This novel was on various authors’ “best of 2013” lists. I think it may have been on Lionel Shriver’s and I adore her, so this got bumped up on my “to-read” list. In fact, the voice of our protagonist is quite a lot like many of Lionel Shriver’s narrators; detailed, melancholy and confiding.

This is the story of a rather pitiful, lonely woman in her late thirties who feels unsatisfied with her life. She could have been an artist, and could have done something more exciting with her life, but she chose to become a primary school teacher, albeit quite a good one. She is single and childless and, unlike several women I know who are in their thirties who are also in this carefree position, she is not happy about that. Then an exotic family of Middle-Eastern and European origin appear in her life and she becomes obsessed with all three of them – the couple and their son, who she teaches.

Not a great deal actually happens in this book. There is a lot of introspection and over-analysis of feelings from Nora, the narrator. She is in love with all three of the family members, as separate people and as a family. It’s kind of sad, kind of pathetic. The mother in the family is a self-obsessed artist, and not a particularly good friend, which makes the story all the more pitiful.

Ultimately the family moves away again and gets on with their life. They considered Nora a friend (although in rather a shallow and selfish way) but people have lots of friends and only one family so of course they move on, while Nora broods over them. For years. Which seems a bit far-fetched.

I found it very well-written and I certainly got into the head of the protagonist. But I could not really empathise with her, or the shallow and selfish couple she falls in love with, or the little boy, who is, after all, just a little boy. It is not on my “best of 2013” list mainly because I don’t like any of the characters and nothing really happens, which makes it quite a dull 250 pages.

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