Nora Eldridge is “the woman upstairs” in the title of Claire Messud’s new novel — “the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway,” with tidy trash, a bright smile and dashed dreams of being an artist.
She’s a distant relation of Bronte’s madwoman in the attic, a descendant of Thoreau’s quietly desperate men, and to round out the literary allusions, an artist — she makes feminist-themed, Joseph Cornell-like dioramas — in need of a studio of her own.
When the novel opens, Nora is consumed with uncharacteristic rage, practically ready to kill the glamorous, globe-trotting artist/academic couple who cruelly betrayed her several years before.
That would be Sirena Shahid, an Italian-born installation and video artist on the cusp of fame, and her Lebanese-born husband, Skandar, an academic at Harvard for a year to write a book. Their 8-year-old son, Reza, is enrolled in Nora’s class at a progressive school.
The two women become friends after Reza is bullied in the schoolyard, and Sirena rekindles Nora’s smoldering desire to make significant art. Forty-two when the book starts, she has suffered from artist’s block for years because, she believes, she lacks the ruthless gene necessary for greatness. The Siren, of course, has it in spades.
Messud, the best-selling author of “The Emperor’s Children,” does a fine job of building suspense as she constructs the intricate machinery necessary to thoroughly humiliate Nora. We know her relationship with the Shahids will end badly, we just don’t know how.
Meanwhile, across the Charles River in Jamaica Plain, the formerly working-class Boston neighborhood that stands for the authenticity so lacking in cosmopolitan Cambridge, Nora’s lesbian friends try to warn her about the manipulative couple. But Nora is obsessed, and nothing can stop her implosion.
By the end of the novel, you may be thinking good riddance — to Nora and her halting, digressive, precious way of thinking. Although Messud is an admirable writer in many respects, Nora strains credulity. Ostensibly a third-grade teacher, she thinks like someone who writes literary fiction.
In Messud’s fictional world, Nora and Sirena occupy opposite ends of a character spectrum that runs from pathetic self-abnegation to pathological narcissism. Unfortunately, neither one is much fun to be with.