Th Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

woman upstairsNora Eldridge is angry. She is 42, single and teaches third grade at Appleton Primary School; ” I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend…”. She considers herself one of the “women upstairs”: reliable, tidy, helpful, undemanding, leading invisible lives of quiet desperation. Her small life changes when 8-year-old Reza joins her class, and Nora becomes intimately involved with his sophisticated and charismatic family. Sirena, Reza’s mother, is an artist on the brink of huge fame and asks Nora to share a studio with her. Nora rediscovers the creativity and joy she put on hold to be the dutiful daughter who nursed her sick mother, and she feels the world open up for her, that her life suddenly has possibilities. We learn, over the course of the novel, the reasons for her feelings of anger and betrayal.

I couldn’t exactly say I loved this novel – being inside Nora’s head is not always comfortable – but that doesn’t mean I don’t recommend it;  it’s brilliantly written, affecting and thought-provoking. Claire Messud is dealing with big important themes here: thwarted ambitions, the traditional carer role of women in society, the effects of feminism a generation on, the particular ruthlessness it takes to succeed as an artist. I think this would be a fabulous choice for book groups, as there is plenty to discuss! Trade paperback $30

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