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Home Uncategorized Staring Down the Barrel

Staring Down the Barrel

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, Virago, 320 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1844087310 In Barbara Pym’s memorable 1952 novel Excellent Women, staid bachelor Everard Bone remarks to shrewd spinster Mildred Lathbury that he’s considering marrying “an excellent woman” ‑ one of those plain ladies of a certain age who inspire admiration not lust, the trustworthy volunteers and tea-dispensers, the capable backbones of Church socials, school jumble sales and every legible filing system. Mildred thinks he’s making a mistake. “Poor things,” he says, “Aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?” To which she replies, “Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.” The protagonist of Claire Messud’s latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, knows she is considered an excellent woman, or as she would say, “a good girl”. Nora Eldridge is a forty-two-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and when the book opens in 2009, she is “self-immolating” with rage. In an unflinching appraisal of her life, she declares fate has condemned her, along with many others of her gender, to be a “woman upstairs”, to be ignored for being middle-aged, single, and childless, “to cede and swerve and step aside, unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked”, condemned to spend her weekends with “Sex and the City reruns and the Garnet Hill catalogue”, dutifully visiting her widowed father in his nursing home, after tending her sick mother, who took too heartbreakingly long to die. The fuse behind her fury was lit five years before, during her “time of reckoning”, when at age thirty-seven she abandoned her artistic aspirations and stood aghast as mortality barrelled toward her. Enter the exotic Shahid family: an encounter that upends her life of quiet desperation. It’s eight-year old Reza she sees first, in a supermarket accompanied by a nanny who “watched the shop as if it were television”. When Reza reappears as a pupil in her class, she meets his Italian mother, Sirena, a video and installation artist, and finally his Lebanese father, Skandar, a visiting scholar. Nora is bewitched: “If they were a meal, I would have eaten all the courses with equal relish.” The Shahids are no more or less selfish than anyone else. They seem to like Nora and she is, unarguably, convenient. With a child’s astute perception, Reza knows a gifted teacher when he sees one; Skandar needs a sounding board and acolyte whenever his wife is wrapped up in her art; and Sirena…

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