The Washington Post - Ron Charles
…a tightly wound monologue with the intensity of a novella that reads more like a curse…You can catch the faint scent of some toxic mold from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or Notes on a Scandal or even The Talented Mr. Ripley…If Nora is a monster, she's also a sympathetic and perceptive victim. But of what? Bad luck? Self-pity? A chauvinistic society? A more polemic, far less enjoyable novel would hand us the answer. But Messud isn't writing an op-ed, and her story's feminist critique of America rubs raw against her deconstruction of sisterhood. What eventually rises above these gender issues is Nora's pained howl.
The New York Times Book Review - Liesl Schillinger
It's exhilarating to encounter such unrestrained vehemence in a work by this controlled, intellectual author. Messud's previous novels, albeit extraordinarily intelligent and well-crafted, are characterized by rationed or distant emotion. The Woman Upstairs is utterly differentits language urgent, its conflicts outsize and unmooring, its mood incendiary. This psychologically charged story feels like a liberation. Messud's prose grabs the reader by the collar…Reading Nora's turbulent testament of belief and betrayal, you feel less like a spectator than a witness…In this ingenious, disquieting novel, [Messud] has assembled an intricate puzzle of self-belief and self-doubt, showing the peril of seeking your own image in someone else's distorted mirroror even, sometimes, in your own.
The gifted Messud, writing her way through the ages, has now arrived at a woman in her 40s–and it’s not pretty. Nora Eldridge, a schoolteacher who dreams of being an artist, is angry, cynical, and quietly desperate. Then she meets the Shahid family: Sirena, Skandar, and Reza, a student in Nora’s third-grade class at Appleton Elementary in Cambridge, Mass. When Sirena asks Nora to share an artists’ studio, Nora falls in love with each exotic Shahid in turn: Sirena, for her artistic vision; Skandar, for his intellectual fervor; and Reza, because he’s a perfectly beautiful child, bullied at school but magnanimous. In her previous books, Messud (The Emperor’s Children) has set individuals against the weight of kin; here is an individual who believes she’s found a vigorous self in the orbit of a dangerously charismatic family. But after freeing Nora from herself, the Shahids betray her, Sirena especially, cruelly exploiting a private moment of Nora’s newfound joy with an intimate work of art Sirena shows in Paris without Nora’s knowledge. As with other Messud characters, these too are hard to love; few would want to know the unpalatable Nora, so full of self-loathing, nor the self-important Shahids. Agent: Georges and Anne Borchardt, the Borchardt Agency. (May)
The setup in this elegant winner of a novel seems so obvious; aren’t warning bells sounding for Nora Eldridge? A middle-aged Boston-area elementary school teacher and artist manqué who cuttingly describes herself as “the woman upstairs”someone who can be depended on to be dependableNora is enthralled when sweet, smart, charming Reza Shadid enters her class. His Lebanese-born father has left a post in Paris to teach in America for a year, while his Italian-born mother, the appropriately named Sirena, is an artist of some renown. Together, this worldly, glamorous family seduces Nora, with Sirena especially culpable. She talks Nora into sharing a studio with her, and soon Nora is opening to all the possibilities life has to offerpossibilities she thought were dead and gone forever.
Verdict This quietly, tensely unfolding story is related in retrospect, so we know from the start that it has ended badly for Nora. The only question is how. Remarkably, Messud (The Emperor’s Children) lets us experience Nora’s betrayal as if it were our own, and what finally happens really is a punch in the stomach. Highly recommended.Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
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A self-described "good girl" lifts her mask in Messud's scarifying new novel (The Emperor's Children, 2006, etc.). "How angry am I?" Nora Eldridge rhetorically asks in her opening sentence. "You don't want to know." But she tells us anyway. Nora is furious with her dead mother, her elderly father and her estranged brother, none of whom seem to have done anything very terrible. Basically, Nora is furious with herself: for failing to commit to being an artist, for settling for life as a third-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass., for lacking the guts even to be openly enraged. Instead, she is the woman upstairs, "whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell." So when the exotic Shahid family enters her life in the fall of 2004, Nora sees them as saviors. Reza is in her class; after another student attacks and calls the half-Lebanese boy "a terrorist," she meets his Italian mother, Sirena, the kind of bold, assertive artist Nora longs to be. They wind up sharing a studio, and Nora eventually neglects her own work to help Sirena with a vast installation called Wonderland. She's also drawn to Skandar, an academic whose one-year fellowship has brought his family to Cambridge from Paris. "So you're in love with Sirena, and you want to fuck her husband and steal her child," comments Nora's friend Didi after she confesses her intense feelings. It's nowhere near that simple, as the story unfolds to reveal Sirena as something of a user--and perhaps Skandar too, though it's unwise to credit Nora's jaundiced perceptions. Her untrustworthy, embittered narration, deliberately set up as a feminine counterpoint to the rantings of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, is an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms. Messud persuasively plunges us into the tortured psyche of a conflicted soul whose defiant closing assertion inspires little confidence that Nora can actually change her ways. Brilliant and terrifying.
From the Publisher
“Fantastic. . . . Burst[ing] with rage and desire. . . . Messud writes about happiness, and about infatuation—about love—more convincingly than any author I’ve encountered in years.” —Lionel Shriver, NPR
“A liberation. Messud’s prose grabs the reader by the collar. . . . In this ingenious, disquieting novel, she has assembled an intricate puzzle of self-belief and self-doubt, showing the peril of seeking your own image in someone else’s distorted mirror—or even, sometimes, in your own.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A trenchant exploration into the mercenary nature of artistic creation. . . . Destined to become a cultural benchmark.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Fantastically smart.” —The Washington Post
“Riveting. . . . Messud is adept at evoking complex psychological territory. . . . She is interested in the identities that women construct for themselves, and in the maddening chasm that often divides intensity of aspiration from reality of achievement.” —The New Yorker
“The Woman Upstairs dazzles. . . . [Messud is] among our greatest contemporary writers.” —The Miami Herald
“A work of such great emotional velocity.” —Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice)
“A liberation. Messud’s prose grabs the reader by the collar. . . . She has assembled an intricate puzzle of self-belief and self-doubt, showing the peril of seeking your own image in someone else’s distorted mirror—or even, sometimes, in your own.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Exhilarating. . . . After the final powerful paragraphs, in which Nora howls in galvanized fury, throw it down and have a drink, or a dreamless nap. Don’t be surprised if you then pick it back up and start all over again. A” —Entertainment Weekly
“Startling: a psychological and intellectual thriller.” —Los Angeles Times
“Mesmerizing. . . . While it was Messud’s achingly beautiful characters crystallizing midlife that drew me in, it was her grotesque portrait of an inner life free to swell, untethered to the realities of children, a spouse and a mortgage that made me think.” —The Huffington Post
“Corrosively funny. . . . At a time at which there seems to be plenty for creative women to be angry about, Nora’s rant feels refreshing.”— Vogue
“Engrossing. . . . Think of [Nora] as the woman who leans out: the A student who puts others’ needs first. . . . Through the ensuing drama, which includes one of the more shocking betrayals in recent fiction, Messud raises questions about women’s still-circumscribed roles and the price of success.” —People (A People’s Pick)
“A supremely well-crafted page-turner with a shocker of an ending.” —The Boston Globe
“[Messud has] a literary critic’s knack for marshaling and reverberating themes and, most crucially, a broad and deep empathy. . . . The Woman Upstairs is first-rate: It asks unsettling, unanswerable questions.” —The Denver Post
“Brilliant. . . . Messud’s cosmopolitan sensibilities infuse her fiction with a refreshing cultural fluidity. . . . The Woman Upstairs brims with energy and ideas.” —NPR
“[Messud] knows how to make fiction out of the clash of civilizations. Her heroines . . . inhabit the inky space between continents, physical and generational. . . . The Woman Upstairs is not a pretty read, but that is precisely what makes it so hard to put down.” —The Economist
“[Here] are tart meditations on the creative impulse and the artistic ego, on the interplay between reality and fantasy and the often-pitiful limits of human communication. . . . Smoldering.” —Bloomberg Businessweek
“Spellbinding, psychologically acute. . . . How much of Nora’s fantasy is true . . . is the real subject of Messud’s novel. . . . Exquisitely rendered.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Hypnotic. . . . In Nora, Messud has conjured a self-contradictory yet acutely familiar character; we’ve all met someone like her, if we aren’t like her ourselves. . . . Nora does not become monstrous or pathological or even absurd. This, in a way, is her tragedy.” —Salon
“Messud is a tremendously smart, accomplished writer. . . . What the novel does, in spades, is give a voiceless woman a chance to howl.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Bracing. . . . In this fierce, feminist novel, the reader serves as Nora’s confessor, and it’s a pleasurable job to listen to someone so eloquent, whose insights about how women are valued in society and art are sharp and righteous.” —Dallas News
“A trenchant exploration into the mercenary nature of artistic creation. . . . Destined to become a cultural benchmark.” —The Wall Street Journal
Read an Excerpt
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight- A, strait- laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone— every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/ friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish. What do I mean? I mean the second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get to my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly gone—they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and cute outfits and they care how their hair looks! In the third grade. They care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics. How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in a place where being female means playing dumb and looking good? Even worse on your tombstone than “dutiful daughter” is “looked good”; everyone used to know that. But we’re lost in a world of appearances now.
That’s why I’m so angry, really—not because of all the chores and all the making nice and all the duty of being a woman—or rather, of being me—because maybe these are the burdens of being human. Really I’m angry because I’ve tried so hard to get out of the hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world, or of my world, on the East Coast of the United States of America in the first decade of the twenty- first century. And behind every mirror is another fucking mirror, and down every corridor is another corridor, and the Fun House isn’t fun anymore and it isn’t even funny, but there doesn’t seem to be a door marked EXIT.
At the fair each summer when I was a kid, we visited the Fun House, with its creepy grinning plaster face, two stories high. You walked in through its mouth, between its giant teeth, along its hot-pink tongue. Just from that face, you should’ve known. It was supposed to be a lark, but it was terrifying. The floors buckled or they lurched from side to side, and the walls were crooked, and the rooms were painted to confuse perspective. Lights flashed, horns blared, in the narrow, vibrating hallways lined with fattening mirrors and elongating mirrors and inside- out upside- down mirrors. Sometimes the ceiling fell or the floor rose, or both happened at once and I thought I’d be squashed like a bug. The Fun House was scarier by far than the Haunted House, not least because I was supposed to enjoy it. I just wanted to find the way out. But the doors marked EXIT led only to further crazy rooms, to endless moving corridors. There was one route through the Fun House, relentless to the very end.
I’ve finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House. All you want is that door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it. No: let me correct that. In recent years, there was a door, there were doors, and I took them and I believed in them, and I believed for a stretch that I’d managed to get out into Reality—and God, the bliss and terror of that, the intensity of that: it felt so different—until I suddenly realized I’d been stuck in the Fun House all along. I’d been tricked. The door marked EXIT hadn’t been an exit at all.