The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs

2.8 48
by Claire Messud

View All Available Formats & Editions

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor's Children, a brilliant new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and betrayed by passion and desire for a world beyond her own.

Nora Eldridge, a thirty-seven-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who long ago abandoned her ambition to be a

…  See more details below


From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor's Children, a brilliant new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and betrayed by passion and desire for a world beyond her own.

Nora Eldridge, a thirty-seven-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who long ago abandoned her ambition to be a successful artist, has become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and tidy neighbor always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her classroom walks Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents—dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar and professor at the École Normale Supérleure; and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist—have come to Boston for Skandar to take up a fellowship at Harvard. When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who call him a "terrorist," Nora is drawn into the complex world of the Shahid family: she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora's happiness explodes her boundaries, until Sirena's careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal. Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill—and the devastating cost—of giving in to one's passions. 

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Claire Messud's fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, puts the reader into the hands of Nora Eldridge, who happens to be in one hell of a bad mood: "How angry am I? You don't want to know," she warns us. Forty-two years old and single, she represents a stock figure in society, condescended to and pitied — when noticed: "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. In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we're furious." Oh dear, thinks this reader — who has read her share of angry books — is this going to be a 250-page harangue?

It isn't. Nora pulls herself together and gives us a tale that I simply cannot get out of my mind. Not because of the final blow dealt to her, which is a real stunner, but because of the chilly precision with which her creator, Messud, draws Nora's complicity in her own sorry predicament and artfully conveys its insidiousness.

Nora, an artist manqué, teaches third grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Five years ago a new student appeared in her class, Reza Shadid, son of a Lebanese academic, Skandar, and an Italian artist, Sirena. The family has come from Paris for the school year while Skandar takes up an academic fellowship and Sirena works on a complicated piece of installation art for an exhibition to be mounted in Paris the next year. Nora is smitten with little Reza, a beautiful, gentle soul who, however, becomes the victim of two older, cloddish boys who call him a terrorist. That ugly incident draws Nora into the Shadid family's ambit. Soon she is sharing a studio (and its cost) with Sirena, babysitting Reza while his parents pursue their various engagements, and taking long, circuitous walks afterward from the Shadid home to her own with Skandar.

Motivated by the studio and the company of another artist, Nora resumes her own work, the construction of painstakingly accurate dioramas. She plans a series of miniature recreations of the sequestering rooms of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Neel. To finish it off on another note, she will recreate Edie Sedgwick's room at The Factory. Picked out in meticulous detail and complete with solitary, isolate occupant, each space is — or will be — supplied with a minuscule, scarcely noticeable amulet called Joy.

There is much to ponder in Nora's choosing to create these tiny arenas for a vicarious life, habitats that draw people to peer in and contemplate the person inside. Nora craves proper notice, but other elements in her life also resonate with this closed-in art, literally so in the fate of her mother, often reflected upon, who died slowly, increasingly paralyzed, from a neurodegenerative disease. The two other family members we meet are very models of New England costivenesss: her father, whose time is spent doing not much, napping, and waiting for Nora to phone or show up, and her mother's sister, Aunt Baby, so called because of her essential innocence, whose life has been lived in thankless doting on the children of others. Both are "mild septuagenarians not even given to sentimental reminiscence, stultifyingly locked in their present of small ailments, the weather, the television news, which news was full of nothing."

Nora herself begins to live her life through the Shadids, falling in love with each one of them, feeling enlarged and vital, as if she's broken through to reality. She increasingly neglects her own work in the studio to help the other woman put together her installation, a construction called Wonderland, tiresome to me in its conceits, but certainly believable and ideal as the mise-en-scène for the book's most unfortunate episode. Messud brings us deeply into Nora's mind, and we take in with dismay the two older Shadids' casual slights and presumptions and Nora's rationalization of each situation.

To an extent, Nora's failure as an artist or, indeed, as a fulfilled person, has been and remains a failure of will, not just in failing to keep her eye on the ball — though there is certainly that — but in failing to turn her back on apparent obligations, to her parents' wishes, and later, to nursing her mother through her final years. Now in her rage, she sees she was under the impression that if she did whatever life called on her to do, that doing it, or despite doing it — rewards and obstacles tend to fuse in this outlook — she would end up where she wanted to be. This is not uniquely, but still dominantly, a woman's predicament: "Men have figured out how to spawn children and leave them to others to raise, how to placate their mothers with a mere phone call from afar, how to insist, as calmly as if insisting that the sun is in the sky, as if any other possibility were madness, that their work, of all things, is what must — and must first — be done. Such a strength has, in its youthful vision, no dogs or gardens or picnics, no children, no sky: it is focused only on one thing, whether it's on money, or on power, or on a paintbrush and a canvas. It's a failure of vision, in fact, anyone with half a brain can see that. It's myopia. But that's what it takes. You need to see everything else — everyone else — as expendable, as less than yourself."

Art is, after all, having your own way; and Sirena possesses the necessary unconsciousness of what might be called decency to have it, to make it in every sense. Neither she nor her husband are bad people — well, not exactly, though each is guilty of a serious transgression; but chiefly, and in the end, devastatingly, they are simply not what Nora wants them to be where she is concerned: "[S]ometimes I'd picture the three of us, installed in a farmhouse in Vermont, or in Tuscany, or in a thatched bungalow on a Caribbean island, in order that we might live cheaply enough to make art?. I knew the layouts of these various houses, the unfolding of their rooms. I built them in my mind, and we inhabited each of them at different times."

Nora's tropism towards helping and her fantasy of belonging dovetail disastrously with the Shadids' matter-of-fact pursuit of their own aims. Messud is astonishingly deft in getting across the complex nature of the situation, holding consciousness and obliviousness, neediness and taking, virtue and trespass in a state of dynamic fluidity. She has also pulled off the very difficult feat of combining literary allusion and thematic recurrence with what is real in the world: human particularity. This is the sort of novel one would like to sit down and discuss for hours, and I am sure that that is just what will happen, ardently and disputatiously, across the land.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

Read More

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
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.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Woman Upstairs 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
Mamma_Librarian More than 1 year ago
This is a book that made me ponder about the things that are important. Nora is a character that you can relate to (even if you don't have a budding artist inside you).  The themes are contemporary, but not cliched. The writing is amazing. Not sure what the one reviewer meant about pedantic--because it is exactly the opposite of that.  So sad to see this book with a 3 stars because of it. I'm a librarian and I know what I'm talking about. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Funny, angry, intense---riveting! And with a most natural-sounding writing style. The sentences flow like sweet water.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this book captured so many emotions from disturbing to humorous. Rarely is an author able to probe the depths of a character's psyche in the way Massud accomplishes with Nora. A truly well told tale spun from the innermost thoughts of a middle-aged woman seeking to find meaning in her life. Excellent read. I cannot understand the negative reviews, as I was totally mesmerized!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was not intended to be "entertaining". Those who thought so missed the point. It was a character study of the type of person we all know, funtioning moderately well on the outside but filed with regret and both saddness and anger on the inside. It is about relationships, hope, trust, betrayal and striving versus resignation. It may be adowner but is very powerful and may cause one to reexamine his/her own relationships and goals. For those who want to read something of substance about the human conditon, this an excellent read.
debrareadsalot More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure if I would recommend this book to my friends or not. It is a book that will capture your attention with her anger in the beginning of the book. However the woman I met in the beginning of the book was not at all the woman who remained throughout the telling of her story. Her anger didn't strike a balance with the ending. I really did think we were reading about two very different people. Now that I'm sitting here thinking about a book that I read maybe a month ago I am finding some other things that didn't add up with the character the author introduced us to. It is not a bad read but it isn't a great read. I kept looking for that woman to return. Even as the book ended I waited for that woman. She was something special.
books4gail More than 1 year ago
I want to feel--FEEL--when I am reading a novel. I am prepared to dislike a character (Olive Kitteridge, anyone?) and still love the book. The Woman Upstairs told me a great deal about what Nora was feeling, but never did I join her in that process of emotion. Funny, because I can totally relate to the love the character would have for all three of the Shahids. And betrayal? After attaching her "reason to live" to these people, Nora betrayed herself over and over again. Not a message inspiring the reader to live for herself, follow her own passion, be proud--at whatever age, stage in life we are.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is most definitely the worst book I have ever read...and I read a lot! Boring, senseless, pointless, weird, the list could go on and on. Do yourself a favor and don't bother reading it! I would have given it "zero stars" had I been able to, but I had t ok give it at least one star to print this WARNING LABEL! ;)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was awful, plain and simple.  Boring, mundane, and absolutely mind numbing story that ultimately went absolutely nowhere.  You suffer through this long, tedious, overly drawn out story told in the first person by one of the single worst literary characters ever written.  You go through all of that knowing that this story must be going somewhere and it never does.  The so called climax comes in the very last chapter and is completely lackluster at best.  This book is definitely in the top five worst I have ever had the displeasure of reading .  My recommendation is to not waste the time or the money, it is not worth either.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did not care for this book. Neither the characters or the storyline were interesting. Read this for my book club and I was glad when I was done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I gave this book five stars primarily because it compelled me so often and so intensely to consider the underlying connections between the characters' interpersonal relationships with the narrator/protagonist, as well as the intrapersonal life of the narrator through her relationships with the characters. I found myself constantly making these connections in each story development, making the end result, my personal analysis, rich, complex, and hearty. It is truly a profound novel, when these extrapolations are conceived. Sure, Nora is rather annoying, and often I saw her as a pathetic creature, too ordinary and too introspective for her own good. Honestly, I think she is seen by the reader as such because we can all, as much as we don't want to admit it, see elements of our own stories, our own personalities, in her. This is a novel to be chewed on, and sometimes, disgusted by. But this is the beauty and intelligence behind the book. If you are ready to read between the lines and find the inferences, read on!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you have lived in a box your whole life and have never had contact with another human then maybe you might find.something this book. The biggest waste of my time EVER! All the positive editorial reviews have me stumped. Did the author have something on all these people that could ruin their lives unless they gave this piece of crap a good review? Seems possible. Do not waste your time! Go stare at a wall for a day or two, it would be more interesting than reading The Woman Upstairs
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read a lot and it took so much control for me not to just throw this book away. I kept waiting for it to get better it never did. Waste of money
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I never connected with the woman upstairs and didn't care if she just disappeared from the planet.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
No conclusion to a story with a main character who i disliked
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boring, depressing, and overwhelmingly deary, with a completely unlikable main character. If this book were a color, it would be black. Do not bother with this one..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Story is much different than I expected. Introspection was laborious and boring so lost interest.
JenPC More than 1 year ago
Messud's Nora Eldridge is creep and obsessive yet probably relatable to some readers. Readers who like their books a little dark and messy will appreciate this novel. Book groups will argue over whether Nora is unlikeable, fascinating, or both.
ToriG More than 1 year ago
This is the first person account of Nora, a 40-ish 3rd grade teacher, who lives a life that is both rigid and a compromise of her passions of art and children. She is unmarried, childless and somewhat pissed off about her life in general. She is, in her words, the woman upstairs, someone who is interesting, reliable, a bit mysterious, and yet a bit of a stranger as well. Even her art, highly detailed and uniquely realistic and beautiful, is all in miniature, underscoring the disdain she feels for herself. Her best friend is in a committed relationship with another woman, and Nora seems to be bitterly jealous of the partner. I didn't like Nora very much, but I was drawn along nonetheless, and I found myself feeling a sort of grudging respect and empathy for her. Early on in the book she meets the family of one of her students, the Rashids, and is immediately taken by them all, mother, father and 8 year old son. Her attraction to them, individually and together, seems to emphasize the pointlessness and disappointment of her own life and they embody who she imagined she could have been in many ways. She loves them each, yet her love of them is based on jealousy of who they are and what they have, collectively and individually. She is not a particularly likeable character, yet her narrative is so intimate, that it feels as if you are an unwilling best friend as you read it. She seems to want to live vicariously through them, as friend, lover and even mother, and accomplishes these roles in some respects. Despite her cloying love and ultimate closeness to the Rashids, she is betrayed by them in a most humiliating way, finally bringing some understanding to her early statement that even though she loves them, she hates them. Claire Messud is an excellent writer, and her easy descriptive style brings you right by Nora's side through the book. Phrases from the book will stay with me for a long time. One of my favorites is Nora's description of herself in a baby picture, noting that she looked like "a befuddled frog in pretty clothes." Overall, I really liked the book, in spite of, and because of, the discomfort level you feel for Nora.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago