Is Nora a real artist, or more accurately, does she have the passion to be a real artist? That’s the question I found myself asking while reading Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Nora is bitter about choices that diverted her from her first career path in art; waylaid by a love affair that led her in an unexpected direction and influenced by her practical parents, she chooses a degree in education as she nears her 30s. Her choices were hers alone, although she sees herself as a victim of fate. Unlike the artist, Alice Neel with whom she feels a kinship, Nora never sacrificed a comfortable living, suffered through bad relationships and an emotional breakdown, and considered all relationships, even with her children, second to her art. Nora drifted away from men, lived on a comfortable elementary school teacher’s salary, and had no children. Her mental health, however, may be suspect, as the reader will discover. Are Nora’s safe choices at the heart of her dissatisfaction, or is she destined to make poor choices regarding her own happiness?
When Nora meets her new student’s mother, they realize a comradery that leads them to share a studio. Nora embarks on her happiest year, practicing her art and falling in love with the her studio mate, Sirena; along with Sirena’s son and, ultimately, her husband. Her association with Shahids and her indulgence in her art free in Nora a sensuality and freedom previously unknown, but Nora’s obsession with Shahids grows and eventually trumps her interest in the small, intensely precise creations that reflect her repressed character. When Nora discovers that her studio mate is a respected artist on the brink of world renown, she becomes petty and critical while still trying to hold onto her over-estimated importance in the lives of the Shahids.
When the family returns to Paris and the opening of Sirena’s acclaimed exhibition, Nora returns to her miniature world, but not her art. She relies upon the tentative bonds of her long distance relationship with Shahids, and when she has the opportunity, she visits them in Paris where she discovers, in a shocking conclusion, the extent to which an artist may sacrifice relationships and, perhaps, decency for art.
Messud offers an examination of the compromises that women make to pursue their artistic passions. She also invites us to define what ethical restraints should be placed on friendship. Most of all, she presents a brilliant character study of a very flawed and fascinating character.