the woman upstairsIf you are of an age where you meet friends in a skeezy bar over a few pitchers of beer to discuss how to hide your tattoo from your family at Christmas, this book will bore you senseless. But if you are in your 30s or beyond, have lost a few cherished people through death or betrayal, and had months with no clue of how to crawl out from under low self-esteem, you will probably like it. And, if you are a careful reader who loves books with an intimate – even confessional – voice, one that feels like an in-the-moment conversation, this is a character-driven book you should try on for size. I’m that reader and I loved it.

Nora Eldridge teaches third grade in Boston. She’s pushing 40, single, and disappointed and bewildered at her inability to fulfill her dream of being an artist. She’s also in largely unacknowledged grief over the death of her mother, a woman she describes as “a beloved embarrassment.” Into her classroom walks Reza, the son of Sirena and Skandar Shahir. Skandar is in Boston for a semester as a visiting lecturer at Harvard. Sirena is an artist on the threshold of a major career. The adult Shahirs are sophisticated exotics from foreign lands, emotionally careless people who attract people in need, use them, and move on. Nora is immediately bewitched by the lot of them.

Sirena asks Nora to share a studio space and within weeks Nora’s got a major girl crush going on. But though she obsesses about telling Sirena she loves her, Nora doesn’t really want to be with Sirena as much as she wants to be Sirena. They are polar opposites: Nora, a clog-wearing school teacher, and Sirena, a woman in a cloud of silk scarves and cigarette smoke. Nora’s art is contained in tiny spaces; Sirena’s takes up half a warehouse. Nora suffers from low self-esteem; Sirena expects to be handled with a fawning esteem she never questions she deserves. Nora is devastated when she feels she has betrayed Sirena; Sirena betrays Nora’s privacy without a backward glance. Nora’s involvement with Shahirs increases, and when her crush grows to embrace Skandar things get really interesting. The book takes place over several years, a few marked by estrangement.

That’s all I’m going to tell you.

The Attentive Reader Will Note: The title is drawn from a paradigm with which Nora identifies, that of a woman who is largely silent and invisible and “doesn’t cause any trouble.” I would argue that this vision of herself is in Nora’s head – her upstairs, if you will. She is quite capable of causing trouble.

I tried and failed to make a case for Nora’s upstairs woman to be a version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Madwoman in the Attic,” Bertha Rochester. Except Nora is not mad. She is furious with her situation (in fact, I nearly stopped reading after the first few pages because of her virulent anger), but she’s not crazy. She does not belong in an institution. She belongs in the world, and is determined to claim her rightful place in it.