Get ready to expand your horizons. Claire Messud has exposed the underbelly of her female protagonist, and the complexity of Nora Eldridge is going to launch a new standard of truth for women in literature.

…every one of us is capable of rage

So says Nora Eldridge in the opening pages. And we get her because she embodies what we, the readers, hide from the world.

It doesn’t even occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable. 

Messud is a kind of clairvoyant—one with a knife— who exposes what remains of the character’s grit after the bowels have been scraped. Is that horrifying? So was adolescence and yet, we survived, or did we?

The Woman Upstairs seems to say, no. Nora’s battle with loneliness, rejection, feelings of inadequacy as a woman and an artist, her longing to attain a dream she is uncertain how to fulfill—given her present circumstances—are no different than the struggles of every teen. Yet, society pushes us forward and we pretend to move beyond the angst because we want so desperately for it to go away. But the truth is those unresolved issues don’t always disappear. They often linger, ferment, and continue to hold us back from achieving what, deep in our gut, we know is possible and probable, provided we get out of our own way.

…a lifetime ago in my artist phase, when I’d thought I might yet turn out to be the person that I wanted to be—whoever that person might have been… 

Our dreams are bold and hungry. If we feed them with faith and kindness and give them room to breathe, when we arrive at the critical moment we soar like Nora’s studio partner Sirena. But sometimes at the precipice, a claw of fear gnarls our back and we choke, and like Nora, our dreams shrink. We watch the world thrive while our wings beat against the walls of the cubicle we exist in.

Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying—valiantly, fruitlessly—to eradicate. 

A less seasoned author might’ve run with the sorrow until every character and the reader were buried by it. Messud, a literary artist, understands life is never a dead end. Stories that awaken our senses, like true stories that inspire, spin forward from an opportunity for change. Reza, Sirena and Skandar Shahid are Nora’s gateway. Her willingness to embrace their presence and surrender to the unknown and the possible unravels her fear and unleashes a stream of personal discoveries that change her life.

The Woman Upstairs is drenched in anger and sorrow and driven by passion and hope. No female protagonist has been so blatantly wounded, or so determined to uncover the means to heal without a man in sight. Claire Messud pricks up our consciousness. Our view of women, artists and what it means to be whole and alive will never be the same.

Meet The Woman Upstairs.