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The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs

2.8 48
by Claire Messud

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A New York Times Book Review Notable Book • A Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year • A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book • A Huffington Post Best Book • A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year • A Kirkus Best Fiction Book • A Goodreads Best Book



A New York Times Book Review Notable Book • A Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year • A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book • A Huffington Post Best Book • A Boston Globe Best Book of the Year • A Kirkus Best Fiction Book • A Goodreads Best Book

Nora Eldridge is a reliable, but unremarkable, friend and neighbor, always on the fringe of other people’s achievements. But the arrival of the Shahid family—dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, an Italian artist, and their son, Reza—draws her into a complex and exciting new world. Nora’s happiness pushes her beyond her boundaries, until Sirena’s careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal. Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this New York Times bestselling novel is the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and abandoned by a desire for a world beyond her own.

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)
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

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.

Product Details

Gale Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(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.

Meet the Author

Claire Messud’s 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 both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; and her second novel, The Last Life, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and Editor’s Choice at The Village Voice. All four books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Messud has been awarded Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

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. 49 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 interesting.in 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
"Do i dare disturb the universe?.." This might be how everyone, actually, thinks of how the other half live. Thank you Ms. Messud.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a thoughtfully crafted , beautifully written novel told from the viewpoint of Nora, an unlikable , self-centered martyr . She crosses paths with the Shahid family who can best be described as "careless people " . The results are predictably tragic and illuminating at the same time .
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.