It’s always amazing when you discover a really great author and a great story. I think the last time I was so moved and impressed was when I read “The Help”.
The Woman Upstairs is a different genre, slightly reminds me of Dostoevsky’s under the surface dramas, a story told by the main character who you can’t really like or trust. You think that you should be on her side, but you can’t.
The narrator, Nora Eldridge, is single childless lonely 42 year old elementary school teacher from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also a devoted daughter and an amateur artist who re-creates scrupulous living spaces of famous women in shoe boxes. She tried to become an artist, but never quite persisted, worked for a few years as a consultant, owned a few pairs of Louboutins, almost got engaged to a lawyer, got cold feet, quit and became a teacher. “It seemed worse to try and fail than not to try.”
Nora, in her own words, is a “woman upstairs”
“We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell… Not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible…I will not spill into the lives of others, greedily sucking and wanting and needing. I will not. I will ask nothing, of anyone; I’ll just burn, from the inside out, self-immolating like those monks doused in gasoline.”
Why she is angry? What’s the drama?
In short, she meets a strange foreign family and becomes friends with them. She thinks they see something in her that nobody else sees. She thinks she is in love with all of them. Then she learns they just used her.
It’s fascinating to see how Nora is very observant and accurate describing others, she is smart and sharp-eyed. Her comments about foreignness and cultural differences and school dynamics are a masterpiece on its own. At the same time she is absolutely oblivious about herself. As a narrator, she tries to convince you how responsible she is or how there was no choice, but you do not believe her. The more you read, the more you doubt.
This is one of my favorite quotes:
“A good number of my children are bad at time management. You see it a lot. But you can’t succeed in life unless you get good at it: there’s no point in writing the world’s best answer to the first question on the test, if you don’t then leave yourself enough time to write any answers at all to the other questions. You still fail the other test. And I worry, in my bleaker hours, that this is what I’ve done. I answered the dutiful daughter question really well; I was aware of doing only a so-so job on the grown-up career front, but I didn’t really care, because there were two big exam questions I wanted to be sure I answered fully: the question of art, and the question of love.”
Being in love and creating art requires authenticity, substance. You can’t fake it for long. You read and wonder how someone so meticulous and smart as Nora could be so plain and empty inside. To me, this book is trying to answer the question, why people fail. Why so many smart and hard-working people still fail and live empty lives and feel used? What’s the secret ingredient?