Messud's command of language in the description of the interior life of an artist is extraordinary—as is her ability to lift an unlikely character (the woman upstairs) from the obscurity of her life as an unmarried third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the fully fleshed existence of a woman on the cusp of unexpected adventure.
Nora Eldridge is falling in love. Not the convenient way. No, Nora falls for the entire Shahid family: her student, the long-lashed, dark-eyed Reza; his mother, Sirena, an artist; and her husband, Skandar, a history professor. Arriving from Paris, to where they will return in a year after Skandar's work is finished, the Shahids are exotic, unique—though post 9/11, Nora worries for Reza among the other students in her class.
Seduced first by Reza, whom she notices accidentally in the neighborhood rather than the classroom, Nora is further entranced by Sirena, who is constructing an art project for their return to Paris, an installation she hopes will make her name in the art world. When Sirena invites Nora to share studio space, the teacher's nascent talent, left mostly unattended in a second bedroom, is reawakened, inspired by the creativity and enthusiasm of her new friend. The studio in a deserted old building becomes a magical place where Nora's ideas flourish, her efforts taking on a new significance, even beside Sirena's enchanting project, "Wonderland."
Near-dreamlike images are everywhere, enhanced by the significance of phrases, of touch, of shared laughter, Nora's memories of her mother's death, the miniature Emily Dickenson diorama she painstakingly details in the evenings after school has faded from her thoughts. One existence becomes two: the well-behaved, predictable "woman upstairs" and the blooming artist, whose former smallness expands in the glow of mutual creativity. Just as vivid as Sirena's astounding creation is Messud's exploration of Nora's interior thoughts. Intimate, painfully honest—scalding even—Nora is flayed by her engagement with this family, each a precious element of her adoration, all shielded from flaws by the exuberance of her affection. Messud's perceptions, her witnessing of Nora's awakening, her rendition of an artist's mentality is exquisite, blinding, for in it the ego is confronted, challenged, brutalized by reality.
Nora enters each separate passion—for child, father and artist/friend—with equal naiveté, so starved is she for the camaraderie of friendship, of shared moments that enrich daily lives. Though her attachment to Skandar is composed primarily of fantasy, the connection to Sirena is more profound, a reflection of self-love and infatuation with a splendid charismatic creature, the betrayal all the greater for the self-delusion Nora has embraced so willingly. Still, it is easy to fall in love along with Nora, a solitary nature shed like molting feathers under the warm gaze of welcoming friends. Who can blame Sirena for her charm, her infinite pursuit of the images swirling in her head. And who has not wished to live among such people, to breathe the rarified air that seems available to but a few? If Nora chooses to fly too close to the sun, it is simply because she hasn't the power to resist.
The novel ends in "a great boiling rage like the sun's fire." How else? Nora has come back to earth, felt the rocks and stones beneath her feet, shaking, jarred, made foolish—and reborn. This is a magnificent journey, but not for the faint of heart. Follow "Alice" down the rabbit hole as she stumbles through each phase of love gone awry, angry, frightened, but ultimately awash in the rich cacophony of life.