‘The Woman Upstairs’ In Two Parts: Rebirth

The Woman Upstairs is haunting. Claire Messud wrote a bit of a horror story – almost as scary as the “he permed me” moment in Troop Beverly Hills. And truly, if I got a perm in Beverly Hills these days, I would seriously question the mental health of the hairdresser.

The horror we bear witness to in The Woman Upstairs is all hidden in the (non-permed) head. Our narrator, Nora, is a self-described madwoman of the most terrifying sort: the invisible sort. She is “the woman upstairs”, i.e. that quiet neighbor of yours. She is a non-descript, accommodating single woman in her forties who doesn’t cause a ruckus… and probably never will. It is the “never will” part that is scariest. You know and she knows that she will live her life out unfulfilled.

Nora is a school teacher and would-be artist. She dabbles. Then she meets the Shahids. Have you ever fallen in love with a couple? Well, Nora falls for the whole beguiling family. Sirena, the mother, is a successful artist who invites Nora to share a studio with her, prompting Nora to take to her art again. Skandar is Sirena’s husband. He is described as pretty much Nora’s “ideal man”. Reza is Sirena and Skandar’s son. He is an enchanting young boy in Nora’s class of third graders. The Shahids seem to awaken Nora to her life and she begins to question its bleak banality.

I apologize if I am less funny this week. Maybe my darling improv team stole my funny. Or maybe it is that I am reading this book and it is making me contemplate my own life a lot. Not to mention that whole New Year thing always makes me get a little quiet and contemplative. I promise not to get a perm.

You will recognize the worst in yourself in Nora (unless you have a perm – that would be the worst, and Nora does not have one). At the outset of the book, Narrator Nora is far too aware of her own worst tendencies. Nora then recounts her year of knowing the Shahids, when things seemed to take a turn.. And so despite being an image of a life we hope we won’t live, parts of The Woman Upstairs are inspiring. Inspiring may be putting it mildly. This tale makes my need to accomplish my goals, and not become like Nora, downright urgent.

Maybe it resonates so strongly with me because Nora is an artist, and as an actor I understand what it is like to want so badly to share your art with the world. I know what it is like to go through periods of stagnation, then to meet the actor, read the script or land the job that make the possibilities in life seem limitless.

Next week we will talk about Nora’s love, but this week we are focusing on Nora’s artistic rebirth. At the beginning of the new year, inspired by what a successful artist Sirena is, she takes to her studio like a madwoman, except this time it’s the good sort of madwoman – one with an artistic mission. She is invigorated, and accomplishes more in a week than she did all year.

So art and self-worth and blah blah blah… where is the food? Well, Nora celebrates the New Year with the Sirena, the artist who inspired her artistic rebirth. To celebrate, Sirena brings Nora a panettone, as well as some paté and a bottle of Sancerre. I am giving you a recipe for the panettone, but I implore you to give Sancerre a try too. It is one of my favorite Loire valley wines.

Panettone is an Italian bread, traditional for Christmas and the new year. I made it both as a symbol of Nora’s artistic revival, and as food for the coming new year we are fast approaching. I also saw panettone referenced in The Joy of Cooking as an Easter bread. This makes sense, as both Easter and the New Year are associated with rebirth and new beginnings. I hope you make this lofty bread. Sure, you could buy it at the grocery store. Boxes of panettone abound this time of year. However, the experience of baking bread yourself is way more enjoyable than breaking bread someone else crafted. It is a snazzy way to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Seeing as panettone is an Italian loaf, I also would implore you to try it with a little glass of limoncello if you don’t go French with a Sancerre.

Watch the bread, not your hair rise. Feel yourself rising again. Get inspired.

Panettone adapted from The Joy of Cooking

  • 1 cup warm water (105-115 degrees)
  • 2 packets rapid rise yeast
  • 1 cup + 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries soaked in 2 Tbsp. rum and drained-feel free to sip that yummy rum! (traditionally there are other types of dried fruit and citron in panettone, so feel free to use things other than cranberries)

Dissolve yeast in water before stirring in one cup flour. Cover and allow to rise about 15 minutes.

Beat butter, then beat in sugar. One by one beat in eggs, then mush the lemon zest into the salt. Beat into the rest. Slowly beat in the remainder of the flour and continue to beat for five minutes. Stir in the drained cranberries. Cover and allow to rise until doubled, one to two hours.

Punch down, and grease a 10-inch bundt pan. Ideally you have two six-cup coffee cans or actual panettone tins in which to bake, but if you are like me, you don’t have enough space for a pan you only use once a year. Either way, allow the dough in your pan or cans to rise about 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pop it in the oven and bake until nice and golden brown. Turn out onto a plate and allow to cool a wee bit before you saw into it.

Filed Under