The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The woman in the attic is known to be mad. From Jane Eyre onwards, if there was a woman in your attic: beware. For not only was she mad but she was vengeful. Indeed there are many vengeful women or mad women in literature. This woman, Nora, is angry, as she tells us in her first sentence:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that. (3)

Actually she tells us she is angry and isolated, pretty much the two themes for this character. And she proceeds to tell us just how angry and why.

242 Woman upstairs cover

The story

Nora Eldridge is a primary school teacher in Boston. She is in her late 30s. Her life is not very eventful, even if she has a secret artistic life as a creator of tiny rooms of feminist icons such as Emily Dickinson. She has a good life, although sad to have lost her mother. She lives alone, visits her father, sees a friend or two.

Into this quiet and rather boring life come the Shahid family: Sirena, soon to be an internationally famous artist; Skandar the Lebanese academic on a year’s secondment to Harvard; Reza, their child in her class. Nora falls easily for all three, mostly for representing what she is missing in her life – artistic success, a sexual relationship and a child of her own, but also for their exoticism and the verve they bring to her life. They are in Boston for less than a year. She is betrayed by each of them. They disappear out of her life as if that year had been nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t much to them, but Nora had felt alive in a new way. And worse, a year after they left, she discovers that Sirena has violated her privacy in an almost pornographic way.

The themes

The themes of this novel are loneliness and betrayal. She frequently refers to herself as the woman upstairs, to distinguish between herself and the mad women in the attic. But we are forced to imagine that those mad women were also betrayed in some way, or perhaps only lonely and needy.

We see that the hopes she develops for herself and the Shahid family are all in her head. Her skills, as an artist’s technician, a babysitter, a good listener are used by them and mean nothing more than services rendered, not the basis for close friendships.

Her anger brings her finally to acceptance of her life, and one can’t help feel that she has lost something of value by becoming realistic.

The writing

Despite the action taking place mostly inside Nora’s head, there is a fair bit of humour in this book. For example, the names of the school children: Chastity, Bethany, Noah, Aristide, Ebullience. We know a great deal about the school community through these names.

The pace of the writing got a little too slow for me in the middle section when the artistic collaboration between the women is growing. By this stage we have understood that Nora is unlikely to rein in her obsession with the family.

But the introspection also allows for some very perceptive points about women, and especially women who live alone.

The Woman Upstairs is like that. We keep it together. You don’t make a mess and you don’t make mistakes and you don’t call people weeping at four in the morning. You don’t reveal secrets it would be unseemly for you to have. You turn forty and you laugh about it, and make jokes about needing martinis and how forty is the new thirty, and you don’t say aloud what all of you are thinking, which is ‘Well, I guess she’s never going to have kids now!’ and then, still less admissibly, ‘Is it because she didn’t want them, or because she didn’t get around to it (silly fool, a failure of time management) or is it, poor lamb, because of some physical impediment (pitiable case)? Why is she single anyhow? It’s not as if her career has been so spectacular – she’s only a school teacher, and among school teachers she’s not even Shauna McPhee.’ (279-280).

Angry, lonely women like Nora are more common than you think. They are too embarrassing for everyone, aren’t they?

I am amazed at the psychological insights of so many authors. Claire Messud really knows this character. The image of the nightmare Fun House, its horrors and allure, is a strong way to show Nora’s inner state. She allows us to see the workings of Nora’s mind in a sustained way, from start to finish.

Related posts

Annecdotalist’s review, posted in January 2016, considers the acceptability of angry women in novels, and the assumption that Nora is unlikeable. And she makes interesting comparisons with other angry protagonists, such as Barbara in Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and her own protagonist, Diana, in Sugar and Snails.

Over to you

What did you think of this novel? Did you think that Nora was unlikeable? Was she right to be angry? Did you find her unlikeable? Did she have your sympathy?


The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Published by Virago in 2013. 301 pp


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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews

12 Responses to The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

  1. I have to admit that I bought a copy of this book after reading Anne Goodwin’s review but I have not as yet read it. Thank you for the reminder. I must make more time for novel reading and get onto it soon.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Norah. Always good to make time for novels, if you can!
      I think The Woman Upstairs got on my list from Anne’s review. So pleased I noticed it.

  2. Thanks for the mention of my review, Caroline, and glad you enjoyed this novel. Coincidently, I’ve picked out the same marvellous passage to quote in what might be a later post about childlessness in fiction! Lovely to have the chance to read it again in another place.

  3. I labored through this book, not liking it, liking it. Somehow it came a little too close to home.

    • Caroline

      Labouring may not be a bad thing, even not liking may not be a bad thing. I quite understand the ‘too close to home’ thoughts. Sometimes I felt it was very close as well.
      Thanks for the comment Connie.

  4. Anne Gore

    I’ve just ordered a new book edited by Tracey Chevalier of 20 short stories inspired by the authors’ responses to Jane Eyre. I will let you know what I think of it.

    • Caroline

      And not forgetting Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – a whole novel from the pov of Mrs Rochester.

      That looks like a mighty fine list of writers. I look forward to hearing how you get on with the collection. Thanks Anne.


  5. Anne Gore

    Tracy Chevalier Tessa Hadley Sarah Hall Helen Dunmore Kirsty Gunn Joanna Briscoe Jane Gardam Emma Donoghue
    Susan Hill Francine Prose Elif Shafak Evie Wyld
    Patricia Park Salley Vickers Nadifa Mohamed
    Esther Freud Linda Grant Lionel Shriver Audrey Niffenegger
    Namwali Serpell Elizabeth McCracken

    are the authors. It’s called “Reader I married him.”

  6. I absolutely adore your first sentence- “The woman in the attic is known to be mad.” It is brilliant and is not something I had even thought about when I read/reviewed this book- which I loved.

    I did not find Nora to be particularly likable, but that was beside the point for me. She was human and interesting. I often think likability is boring- especially in female characters and I don’t like that they are often held to that standard. And yes, she had every right to be angry. Do I think her behavior bordered on obsessive? Yes, but she was betrayed and her anger justified.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Catherine. I think Claire Messud makes a very angry character very understandable. And you are right, female characters should not necessarily be nice.
      Your observation that she was more or less obsessive is spot on. Flawed characters can be very interesting.
      Perhaps that’s why I find Jane Eyre a little tiresome, she seems so consciously upright, acting properly all the time, and keen to tell us.
      Thanks for you comment.

  7. Eileen

    Did you hear the short stories on Radio 4 recently – the one I liked best was ‘Reader I fixed him’.
    I love the names of the children. Poverty, Chastity and Obedience were our nuns’ vows and I used to think that if I had three dogs when I grew up I’d call them Pov, Chas and Obe.
    PS It is great being back.

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