The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs

by Claire Messud

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Overview

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

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.

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.


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 GlobeBest Book of the Year • A Kirkus Best Fiction Book • A Goodreads Best Book

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307962409
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/30/2013
Series: Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 124,911
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Claire Messud’s most recent 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 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.

Hometown:

Somerville, MA, USA

Place of Birth:

Greenwich, CT, USA

Education:

BA in Comparative Literature, Yale University, 1987, MA in English Literature, Jesus College, Cambridge University, 1989

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.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of best-selling author Claire Messud’s brilliant new novel, The Woman Upstairs.

1. Note Claire Messud’s epigraphs for the novel—quotes from some very persuasive, and very powerful, male writers. How do these words set up expectations for the reader? How do these choices look to you upon finishing The Woman Upstairs? And what about the other male writers (such as Dostoyevsky and Chekhov) whose work is alluded to in Messud’s text? Do they reveal anything about the author’s own understanding of Nora’s reliability, sense of self and potential literary legacy?

2. Nora introduces herself by saying: “My name is Nora Marie Eldridge and I’m forty-two years old. . . . Until last summer, I taught third grade at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and maybe I’ll go back and do it again, I just don’t know. Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might” (p. 5). Which choice seems more likely for Nora? How might she set the world on fire? Is the book itself an act of revenge?

3. At the beginning of the novel, Nora says: “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” [p. 4]. Why does Nora feel that life is a Fun House? What does the Fun House represent for her? Why does she feel it’s impossible to escape? Why is Nora so drawn to each of the Shahids? What do they seem to offer her, and how do her memories inform her attraction to them?

4. What does Nora mean when she describes herself as “the woman upstairs”? What are the chief attributes of this archetype?

5. Nora asks, “How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in place where being female means playing dumb and looking good?” (p. 4). In what ways can The Woman Upstairs be read as a feminist novel? Which aspects of women’s experience does the novel illuminate?

6. Nora might be described as a self-conscious narrator. At the beginning of Chapter 7, she writes: “There was another strand in this tapestry. What does it signify that I am loath to tell you, slow to tell you?” (p. 148). What effect is created by Nora’s direct addresses to the reader and her self-questioning? How does Nora want her readers to see her? Does this honesty make her more of a reliable narrator, or does it trigger the reader to be more skeptical of her storytelling—including her observations and her claims?

7. As he walks her home one night, Skandar tells Nora, “You don’t look like a ravenous wolf,” to which Nora replies, “Well, I am. . . . I’m starving” (p. 161). What is Nora so hungry for? Where does her hunger—her longing and desire—come from?

8. Earlier in the novel, she writes that hunger is “the source of almost every sorrow” (p. 46). Is hunger at the root of her own pain? Nora understands that “the great dilemma” of her mother’s life “had been to glimpse freedom too late, at too high a price” (p. 40). Does Nora reenact her mother’s failed ambitions or go beyond them? Why did Nora give up the artist’s life and become first a management consultant and then an elementary school teacher?

9. Why does Nora choose Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick as subjects for her dioramas? In what ways does she identify with, yet try to distinguish herself from, these particular writers and artists?

10. The ending of The Woman Upstairs delivers a tremendous shock to Nora and to the reader. Were there hints and warnings that a betrayal was coming? Why wasn’t Nora more wary of her involvement with the Shahids? What may have motivated Sirena to treat Nora as she does?

11. Early in the novel, Nora writes: “I’m not crazy. Angry, yes; crazy, no” (p. 5). But later she suggests that if someone else told her story to her, she’d conclude they were either crazy or a child. How is the reader to understand her mental and emotional state?

12. After visiting Sirena’s Wonderland exhibit in Paris, Nora writes: “How could I begin to explain what it meant . . . the great rippling outrage of what it meant—about each of us, about myself perhaps most of all, about the lies I’d persistently told myself these many years” (p. 252). What does the betrayal Nora suffers mean for each of them? What lies has she told herself?

13. It becomes clear by the end of the novel that Sirena was using Nora. Is Nora purely a victim of Sirena’s ruthlessness? To what extent does Nora make herself vulnerable to such humiliation? Was she also using Sirena for her own purposes?

14. Look again at the ferocious opening pages of the novel and at Nora’s self-description, written after the events the novel describes have already transpired. How has she been transformed by her experience with the Shahids? Has the experience, as painful as it was, been good for her in any way?

Customer Reviews

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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.