Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Nora, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, refers to herself as "the woman upstairs" -- that benignly amiable person in everyone's life who kind of hangs around the outskirts of the action. In her younger years she dreamed of being a successful artist and having a family, but those dreams have long since stopped seeming attainable.  Then the Shahids move to town: Reza, the shy, bullied new student in her classroom; his mother Sirena, a glamorous Italian artist; and his father Skandar, a Lebanese college professor in town on a fellowship. When Sirena invites Nora to share an artists' studio with her in Somerville, Nora doesn't know what's more exciting: the space to once again explore her artistic dreams, or the friendship with the mysterious newcomer. Before long, Nora finds herself deeply involved with the whole Shahid family, even falling in love with each of them individually. But how real are the relationships, and what does she really know about the Shahids?

My favorite thing about this book was the voice of Nora. As a narrator, she was nervous, flawed, and incredibly vulnerable. I found myself physically invested -- as in, I would cringe with every awkward moment, and feel my face get red every time she experienced shame or self-consciousness. I enjoyed that for as well as the reader gets to know Nora, the Shahids remain really evasive as characters, so the reader is put in the same position as Nora -- curious, attracted, and completely unsure. I would recommend this to readers looking for contemporary fiction a few steps more complicated than your average beach read.

The Woman Upstairs will be available April 30, 2013.

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