A novel with a first-person narrator — a frustrated elementary schoolteacher with thwarted artistic ambitions — may not seem like the most promising or original premise. But even the most skeptical of readers will be seduced by the opening lines: "How angry am I? You don't want to know."
Claire Messud won many fans with her previous novel, her fourth, titled "The Emperor's Children." It was a best-seller, long-listed for the Man Booker prize, and seen by many as a great post-9/11 novel. But it certainly did not suggest that it would be followed by a work of such great emotional velocity.
We meet Nora Eldridge looking back at her dark life, and she says, "We are not the madwomen in the attic — they get lots of play, one way or another. We're the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind the closed doors, never makes a sound."
Nora's world is shaken up when a boy lands in her third-grade class and she becomes besotted — and entangled — with his slightly exotic family. Nora, with her frustrations, isn't just sitting home looking at "Garnet Hill" catalogs, but she's constructing her own reality, and reveals herself to be an unreliable narrator of the novel, and her life.
"The Woman Upstairs" is full of literary allusions; Nora creates little dioramas of writers' homes, such as those of Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson. No doubt this evokes Henrik Ibsen's "The Dollhouse," whose female protagonist happens to be named Nora. While these do enrich the novel, its power comes from the power of its narrator.
— Elizabeth Taylor, literary editor
'The Woman Upstairs'
By Claire Messud, Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $25.95