The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs

2.8 48
by Claire Messud

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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

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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. 

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Editorial Reviews

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 different—its 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 mirror—or even, sometimes, in your own.
Publishers Weekly
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)
Library Journal
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 dependable—Nora 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 offer—possibilities 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
(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
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—one of those seemingly small stories that so burst with rage and desire that they barely squeeze between hard covers. The prose is impeccable. . . . Messud writes about happiness, and about infatuation—about love—more convincingly than any author I’ve encountered in years. She fills [her] protagonist with an inner life so rich and furious that you will never again nod hello in the hall to ‘the woman upstairs’ without thinking twice. . . Is Nora’s entrancement erotic, or bigger and stranger than sex? I’m not telling. Read the book.” —Lionel Shriver, National Public Radio, “All Things Considered”
“Bracing . . . not so much the story of the road not taken as that of the longed-for road that never appeared. . . . Nora’s anger electrifies the narrative, and Messud masterfully controls the tension and pace. In this fierce, feminist novel, the reader serves as Nora’s confessor, and it’s a pleasure to listen to someone so eloquent, whose insights about how women are valued in society and art are sharp.” —Jenny Shank, Dallas News
“An elegant winner of a novel . . . quietly, tensely unfolding . . . Remarkably, Messud 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
“Utterly compelling . . . Crisply illuminated.” —Katherine Rowland, Guernica

“Messud has many gifts as a novelist: She writes well, dramatizes, has a sharp ear, a literary critic’s knack for marshaling and reverberating themes and, most crucially, a broad and deep empathy that enables her to portray a wide range of characters from the inside. . . . The Woman Upstairs is first-rate: It asks unsettling, unanswerable questions: How much do those who are not our family or our partners really owe us? How close can we really be to them before we start to become needy or creepy? The characters are fully alive.” —John Broening, The Denver Post

“Messud is a tremendously smart, accomplished writer, [and] Nora’s fury explodes from the very first sentence of The Woman Upstairs. . . . The novel gives a voiceless woman a chance to howl.” —Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor
“Engrossing . . . Think of her as the woman who leans out: the A student who puts others’ needs first, plays by the rules, teaches instead of doing. 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.” —Kim Hubbard, People (A People’s Pick)
“Messud’s account of [Nora’s] search for recognition and release is as tight and vivid as Nora’s pent-up passion. I was pulled in.” —Mary Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Messud’s crystallization of how it feels to crash into a midlife reckoning that resonated most and haunted me in the days after finishing her mesmerizing novel. . . . It boils and ‘burns,’ and Messud gives us a double whammy to ensure we feel the pangs of midlife. . . . Messud is most interested in the collision between our inner lives and our reality. . . . While it was Messud’s achingly beautiful characters that drew me in, it was her portrait of an inner life free to swell, untethered to the realities of children, a spouse and a mortgage that made me think. Seeing Nora live so obsessively in her self-made dioramas in search of joy made me find refuge. For those who live in leafy Cambridge surrounded by alluring visiting intellectuals from afar, students and Somerville artists, it must be said that there is a great writer of our times in our midst who is a nice girl, who never walked out on a friend. Just don’t get her angry.” —Heidi Legg, The Huffington Post

“Clear-eyed . . . a passionate and skillful description of female ambition and women artists at work . . . Like Messud herself, Nora knows some women need to stay on fire.” —Britt Peterson, The New Republic

“Spellbinding, psychologically acute . . . Like Emily Dickenson Nora’s heightened state lets her see things others miss. [Yet] how much of Nora’s fantasy is true—and to what degree the Shahids must share the blame when it’s not—is the real subject of Messud’s novel. She may evoke [Ralph] Ellison, but as is often true with her work, the writer who comes to mind is James—with his often unreliable narrators and focus on the disconnect between American innocence and European experience. . . . By novel’s end, Nora has every reason to be angry with the Shahids. But Messud also makes clear that if Nora is living her life upstairs rather than down on the main floor, she has even more reason to be angry with herself . . . Exquisitely rendered.” –Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Nora’s story could also be every woman’s story. . . . [She] is angry, but her anger rekindles her spirit and makes her alive, makes her determined to emerge from her upstairs world. Readers will root for Nora, hoping that her anger will sustain her to live an authentic, felt, and even ruthless life as the artist she has been afraid to be. A masterful, honest look at one woman’s desire to be seen by herself—and others—for who she really is.” —Amy Goodfellow Wagner, Examiner

“Riveting . . . Messud is adept at evoking complex psychological territory, and here favors a controlled and notably unreliable style of narration. 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
“Smoldering . . . a furious account of betrayal, the true source of which is withheld until the final pages. . . . Messud crams much into her portrait of Nora’s life: 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. . . . Nora’s world is piercingly evoked.” —Hephzibah Anderson, Bloomberg Businessweek
“You know a Woman Upstairs; maybe you are one. . . . This is not a simple story of a sidekick woman thwarted by her own fear, and the betrayal that haunts the ‘Shahid years’ explodes in a sudden, cruel flash, forcing Nora’s long-simmering anger to boil over into a justified rage. Messud is an immensely talented writer, and in Nora she gives us a compelling, complex, and unforgettable narrator. The Woman Upstairs is a brilliantly paced story of fearsome love and obsessive longing, and the boundaries and sacrifices of what is to be a woman and to be an artist in the world.” —Amanda Bullock, Everyday eBook

“[A] powerful psychological thriller . . . As in a fairy tale, Nora becomes spellbound by a family that seems to embody what she is missing. The power of self-deception is one of the key themes. . . . This is not just a novel of real psychological insight. It is also a supremely well-crafted page-turner with a shocker of an ending.” —Julia M. Klein, The Boston Globe
“Thrums with fury . . . Startling: a psychological and intellectual thriller.” —Los Angeles Times
“Tightly focused and intensely first-person . . . Nora storms onto the page in a fury to tell us the story of a few months that changed her life. . . . The stage is set for a terrible betrayal, and the ending delivers it. The writing in this book is on fire, and the connections it makes—a Chekhov short story, a Larkin poem, Alice in Wonderland—pop like intellectual fireworks from the page.” —Marion Winik, Newsday
“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. . . . An air of imminent betrayal hangs over the novel. Yet even as she describes the emotional circles of her obsession, Nora does not become monstrous or pathological or even (like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man) absurd. This, in a way, is her tragedy. Deliverance when it does come takes the most unlikely form. Like Ibsen’s Nora, Messud’s walks offstage in a moment of pure potential. What will she do? I can’t begin to imagine, and that, surely, is the point.” —Laura Miller, Salon
“A rare work of fiction seemingly destined to become a cultural benchmark, a byword even. It provides an indelible label for a member of society (and a long recurring figure in literature) who has somehow been confined to anonymity. Messud’s coinage—the Woman Upstairs—is so broadly defining and so necessary that even those who never read the novel may soon find themselves making unwitting use of it. . . . [Nora’s] narration hisses with rage for her hypocritical, accommodating former self and for anyone who has ever taken advantage of her. . . . Once Nora is well lost in love, the author takes us steadily, suspensefully, heartbreakingly toward a jolting conclusion [and] a breathtaking act of betrayal. . . . The Woman Upstairs is a trenchant exploration into the mercenary nature of artistic creation. . . . [It] updates the dictum of Virginia Woolf’s manifesto: It’s not only a little money and a room of one’s own that women need to produce art—it’s a willingness to use and manipulate other people; it’s a capacity for cruelty. . . . Messud’s strongest influence here is Philip Roth. [She] seems to have drawn from [his] outrageous exfoliations of ferocity and contempt in fashioning Nora’s voice. [But] of course, Messud’s unsparingly frank narration comes from a woman, which makes the novel a kind of rejoinder to Roth’s decidedly male-centric universe. . . . The Woman Upstairs is unquestionably a breakthrough for the writer. It forces itself on you, demands your attention, impresses and irritates. There is a genuine sense of unease in these pages, of something solid being overturned by the sheer force of Nora’s rage. . . . Causing a disturbance is the point. It is an altogether impolitic piece of artistry. It is a big, defiant gesture of the sort that women like Nora fear they no longer have within them.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Every new Claire Messud novel is a reason to rejoice. . . . Her prose is so exquisite and immersive that it can make you forget that you’re sitting at home with a book in your hands. . . . [Nora’s] plight elicits empathy, and her palpable disappointment resounds in every sentence. . . . While The Woman Upstairs is set in our all-too-real world, something about Messud’s fiction is reminiscent of filmmaker Wes Anderson’s imaginary wonderlands. Maybe it’s the sheen of technical perfection and old-fashioned dedication to craft. . . . Colorful and fascinating, . . . Nora Eldridge has to be one of the richest and most fully human characters to come along in years. . . . Messud writes with the patience of a saint and that she does so without telegraphing what is to come makes her worthy of serious veneration. The pinnacle of this slow-burning plot comes across as simultaneously shocking and inevitable. . . . These characters and their problems are inseparable from the political and social upheaval around them. The prose here never calls undue attention to itself, and The Woman Upstairs dazzles without outwardly trying. It also solidifies Messud’s place among our greatest contemporary writers.” —Andrew Ervin, The Miami Herald
“Intimate . . . Messud’s cosmopolitan sensibilities infuse her fiction with a refreshing cultural fluidity. . . . The Woman Upstairs opens with extraordinary heat and momentum . . . [and] brims with energy and ideas. . . . A suspenseful psychological thriller . . . Brilliant.” —Jane Ciabattari, NPR

“Exhilarating . . . Messud’s previous novels, extraordinarily intelligent and well-crafted, are characterized by rationed or distant emotion. [But] The Woman Upstairs is utterly different—its 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 mirror—or even, sometimes, in your own.” —Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
“From its opening lines, Messud’s new novel grips like a choke hold. . . .The most unlikely hero, Nora, self-identifies with scornful wit and rage as the titular Woman Upstairs. But oh how Messud, whose last novel was the sharp and brilliant The Emperor’s Children, gives her woman room to roar. . . . Sirena awakens in her an unapologetic lust of life that Nora was previously too good or too scared to claim. The narrative burns toward an inevitable betrayal of startling proportions, one that instead of diminishing Nora lights her ablaze. This is a book sweating with rage, and an exhilarating one. Read it in an openmouthed gulp. 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” —Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly

“In the ongoing debate over whether or not women can ‘have it all’ comes a Molotov cocktail thrown by an unlikely provocateur: Claire Messud’s new novel . . . of friendship and betrayal . . . [which] posits that the natural state of womanhood, at least after age 40, is to have nothing, and that satisfaction of any sort can come only via self-deception. . . . ‘I’m not crazy,’ Nora declares at the beginning of the novel. ‘Angry yes, crazy no.’ In Sirena—self-possessed, artistically fulfilled, a mother, foreign, Nora has found the proof that she need not view herself as a woman society has rejected, an archetypal ‘Woman Upstairs with her cats and pots of tea and her goddamn Garnet Hill catalog.’ The Woman Upstairs avoids moral judgment. [It is] simultaneously a justification for extreme acts in the name of friendship, and Nora’s rallying cry for women like her to rage against the world that has been handed to them. . . . Nora is both sympathetic and horrific. She is at once raising a voice to deep-seated misogyny against aging women, and confirming every bias. Messud’s ability to find the frailty, even the artist, in Nora, makes Sirena more complex as well. For all her perfection, Sirena’s rebukes seem, somehow, unconscionably depraved. . . . The novel offers no comfort in the end; it is, at last, the story of a woman for whom reality and a rich fantasy life have merged.” —Daniel D’Addario, New York Observer
“For practical advice about how women can thrive and control their destinies, check out Lean In by Facebook’s ever-gracious COO, Sheryl Sandberg. But maybe after a hard day of believing in yourself, you just want to luxuriate in a fire of cleansing rage. Go ahead: Push the billionaire’s affirmations aside and listen instead to the she-devil in Claire Messud’s ferocious new novel. Lean in—she’ll singe your eyebrows off. [Nora] may [have] rage, but it’s fantastically smart rage—anger that never distorts, even in the upper registers. When Nora complains about women like herself who dutifully tuck themselves away, she ricochets from Charlotte Bronte to Jean Rhys to Henry David Thoreau to Ralph Ellison. Wherever she digs, she hits rich veins of indignation. [This is] a tightly wound monologue with the intensity of a novella that reads more like a curse. . . . Anger provides the heat, but the novel’s real energy comes from its intellectual fuel, its all-consuming analytical drive . . . Nora’s self-knowledge keeps the reader off-balance. . . . Even as that psychological drama races toward a dark climax, Nora seduces us with her piercing assessment of the way young women are acculturated, the way older women are trapped. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman: It’s hard not to feel your own anxieties and fragile hopes being flayed by these braided strands of confession and blame. Lean in. I dare you.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Messud knows how to make fiction out of the clash of civilizations. Her heroines . . . inhabit the inky space between continents, physical and generational. Survivors to the core, they cling to the ledge even as their worlds are upended. . . . Messud’s writing shows a growing mastery of mood. Comedy, pathos, sadness: nothing seems beyond her. Her new book has all this—and more. Nora’s dormant rage, which her mother warned would one day awaken, drives her on and on. The Woman Upstairs is not a pretty read, but that is precisely what makes it so hard to put down.” —The Economist
“Terrifyingly perceptive . . . The Emperor’s Children is a quite good novel, [but] The Woman Upstairs does far more with a smaller cast [and] has much greater weight. Messud wants to make a point that even successful people can suffer from a lethal celebrity complex. Nora Eldridge is a kind of Madame Bovary for our time, someone who dreams not of romantic passion but of personal fame, in which the envy of the less fortunate figures importantly. . . . Nora is like Emma Bovary in the conviction that she needs the love of glamorous and important individuals to give her life meaning. . . . One particular triumph of The Woman Upstairs is that Messud’s heroine is so sympathetic, and so eloquent and convincing, that the depth of her illusions is not always apparent. . . . Because Messud has lent Nora her own outstanding gifts as a writer we cannot help believing what she tells us, at least for a while.” —Alison Lurie, The New York Review of Books
“The new novel by the author of The Emperor’s Children is like Gone Girl meets The Bell Jar: A lonely teacher’s fixation on a student’s family slowly drives her insane. Messud’s magic power? Keeping her flawed protagonist relatable to the very end.” —Megan Angelo, Glamour
“In this literary page-turner, a Boston teacher with dreams of becoming an artist is first enamored of, and then feels betrayed by, a seductive couple who’ve relocated from Paris.” —Abbe Wright, O, The Oprah Magazine
“Almost without knowing it, I was hungry for Nora Eldridge, the hero of Messud’s new novel. The title names an archetype: the nice, unmarried lady on the third floor who smiles in the lobby and is quickly forgotten. Nora is a caring schoolteacher seemingly content to look after her ailing father, her dreams of living the life of an artist subsumed by the act of simply living a life. Bitterly funny and self-aware, she claims to be having a ‘Lucy Jordan moment,’ name-checking the Marianne Faithfull song . . . It seems right that Messud’s follow-up to The Emperor’s Children grasps furiously at life and punches back at encroaching age. In The Woman Upstairs, she abandons the polyphonic narration of the previous novel for first-person carpe diem prose that is leaner and meaner. . . . Nora [is] exhilarating, a fiery heroine who arrives to serve [both] middle-aged readers, and the young women who will soon see what it’s like when the spotlight swings away, urging us to make the most of that time between here and the finish line.” —Katrina Onstad, Toronto Life

“Corrosively funny . . . Fifty years ago, Simone de Beauvoir faulted creative women for their unwillingness to ‘dare to irritate, explore, explode.’ Two generations later, anger this combustible still feels refreshing.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue

“Heartfelt and profound. . . . From the outset, it’s been clear that Claire Messud has all the necessary equipment—a fertile imagination, a grown-up sensibility, and writerly ambition in spades—to write very good fiction, perhaps even a novel that defined our times. Her latest novel is an absolute page-turner, from its grab-you-by-the-collar opening to its final rumination on the creative uses of anger. . . . For another, it may well be the first truly feminist (in the best, least didactic sense) novel I have read in ages—the novel, candid about sex and the intricacies of female desire, that Virginia Woolf hoped someone would write, given a room and income of her own. The Woman Upstairs takes on, at full throttle, the ways in which women are socialized into being accommodating ‘nice girls,’ and the ruthlessness—the ‘myopia’—that is necessary to pursue artistic ambition. It shows Messud at the height of her considerable powers, articulating the quandary of being alive and sentient, covetous and confused in the twenty-first century. . . . The Woman Upstairs is an extraordinary novel, a psychological suspense story of the highest sort that will leave you thinking about its implications for days afterward. Messud’s skills are all on display here, [in] a work of fiction that is not just beautifully observed but also palpably inhabited by its gifted writer in a manner she has not quite dared attempt before.” —Daphne Merkin, Bookforum
“With exhilarating velocity, fury, and wit, the superlative Messud immolates an iconic figure—the good, quiet, self-sacrificing woman—in this acid bath of a novel, while taking on the vicissitudes of family life and the paradoxes of art. Nora [is] our archly funny, venomous, and raging narrator . . . Messud’s scorching social anatomy, red-hot psychology, galvanizing story, and incandescent language make for an all-circuits-firing novel about enthrallment, ambition, envy, and betrayal. A tour de force portraying a no longer invisible or silent ‘woman upstairs.’” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Claire Messud’s daring, Jamesian new novel takes so many chances and provokes so many questions. . . . Messud is a truth teller about the ruthlessness of art [and] makes a key point about creative work: It means smashing boundaries, using imagination to remake the world. . . . Messud is such a gifted painter of our choices and their consequences. She’s never gone this deep before in showing us how our reality and our pipe dreams intersect. Her portrait of Nora Eldridge, a decent woman who has perhaps crossed the wrong bridges in her life, would move stone. What’s going to become of Nora? What will the Shahids do to her? The Woman Upstairs is Claire Messud’s greatest novel.” —Dennis Haritou, Three Guys One Book
“A self-described ‘good girl’ lifts her mask in Messud’s new novel. ‘How angry am I?’ Nora Eldridge rhetorically asks in her opening sentence. ‘You don’t want to know.’ Nora is furious with herself: for failing to commit to being an artist, for settling for life as a third-grade teacher, 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, 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. . . . Nora’s untrustworthy narration, 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 . . . Brilliant and terrifying.” —Kirkus (starred review)

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.50(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.30(d)

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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.

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Meet the Author

CLAIRE MESSUD's latest novel, The Emperor's Children, was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Her first novel, When the World Was Steady, and her book of novellas, The Hunters, were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her second novel, The Last Life, was a PW Best Book of the Year and Editor's Choice at The Village Voice. All four books were New York Times Notables. She has received Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Brief Biography

Somerville, MA, USA
Place of Birth:
Greenwich, CT, USA
BA in Comparative Literature, Yale University, 1987, MA in English Literature, Jesus College, Cambridge University, 1989

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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
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
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
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
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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