You can’t tell ‘The Woman Upstairs’ by its cover

Nora, the furious narrator of Claire Messud’s spectacular novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” tells us early on: “I’m neither fat nor thin, tall nor short, blond nor brunette, neither pretty nor plain.”

Not to add to Nora’s aggravation, but we could say the same thing for the book’s new paperback version being released today: It’s neither attractive or ugly — just easy to ignore.

Original US version published in 2013 by Knopf.
Original US version published in 2013 by Knopf.

When the novel was first published last April, the dust jacket featured the haunting image of a second-story window at night. The feeling is lonely and sinister, vaguely Hitchcockian. We can feel Nora up there quietly seething.

New paperback version released on Feb. 4 by Vintage.
New paperback version released on Feb. 4 by Vintage.

But presumably that cover didn’t generate sufficient interest among readers because today’s new paperback edition takes an entirely different — I would say entirely dull — approach: The author’s name is bigger and on top of the title this time. But the background is some kind of blurry underwater image of nothing. Evocative? Mysterious? Meh.

The British version published in 2013 by Virago.
The British version published in 2013 by Virago.

The Brits went for a more literal interpretation: a vertiginous shot of an enormous spiral staircase. It’s an arresting photo, but its grandeur is strikingly incongruous with the novel’s plot and theme. And, if I’m not mistaken, that’s an image recycled from Karen Armstrong’s 2004 memoir, “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.”

So poor Nora gets something bland or someone’s hand-me-down. But don’t worry, she won’t mind. She said it herself: “We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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