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The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
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The Woman Upstairs (2013)

by Claire Messud

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1,3691059,071 (3.36)101
Relegated to the status of schoolteacher and friendly neighbor after abandoning her dreams of becoming an artist, Nora advocates on behalf of a charismatic Lebanese student and is drawn into the child's family until his artist mother's careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.
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English (104)  French (1)  All languages (105)
Showing 1-5 of 104 (next | show all)
Nora is a junior school teacher who perceives herself as one of those unprepossessing ‘women upstairs’ that so many people know of, but don’t actually know. Reliable women who are in the background of more lively lives. All this changes for Nora when she meets the Shahids, a family who move to the States for a year, and whose lives she becomes involved with via their young son who joins her class. The novel is an exploration of heightened friendships that can occur in the lives of those who until then have felt themselves on the sidelines of life, never achieving their dreams/goals, but then find themselves swept up in an intense friendship that lifts them into another gulf stream of experience. How does that feel, how does it change them, who’s authenticity survives? Everyone will have had this experience whether as a young person or later in life, and Messud really captures this feeling of inside/outside/sparkling tenuous reality. It rarely lasts indefinitely, but is always a game changer. ( )
  Caroline_McElwee | Dec 9, 2019 |
Wow. I loved this book. I guess I can see why not everyone does - how well you relate to the story and the main character, Nora, will depend very much on what sort of a person you are. I suppose a number of people will also look for more action than you'll find in this story. It is not plot-driven by any means. I can imagine many people will find Nora to be over-dependent on others and they won't understand how anyone could get into the situation in which Nora finds herself. I do understand Nora, however. So apart from appreciating Ms Messud's wonderful character developments, fascinating imagination of art and the world of artistic people and marvellous descriptions of the urban life in which the story is set, I felt a strong connection to Nora Eldridge. I am prepared to accept that I am in a minority in that regard, but even apart from that issue, I reckon this is one stunning book by an excellent author. ( )
  oldblack | Feb 17, 2019 |
A rather dull novel about a single third grade teacher who becomes obsessed with the Lebanese family living upstairs. Their kid is in her class, and she uses him to get closer to first the mother and then the father. Some people just need to get a life. I listened to it on audio; who knew that a Lebanese accent is the same as an Italian one? The best I can say is that it isn't quite as bad as the worst books I've ever read, so I gave it one star. ( )
  Cariola | Sep 18, 2018 |
Eh, it was o-kay...
I did not like the narrator's voice, which, I guess fits with how much I disliked the main character. I found her to be intriguing for the first 2/3 of the book and her brand of crazy was just bizarre enough to keep me going. By the last 1/3, I thought the author was really grasping at a dead idea. Yeah, she is obsessed with this family and loves them all in varying degrees of alarming emotion and loyalty. Got it. As with any runway bestseller, this book does have a couple shining areas whether that be character development, unique dialogue, or particular strings of words that make you breathe out in a nice way when you hear them. It is worth your time but don't buy; borrow it instead. ( )
  ambersnowpants | Aug 23, 2018 |
If you want to read a book about one of the most supremely pathetic individuals in the history of fiction - except maybe Quasimodo - then this book is for you.

A miserable read from start to finish. ( )
1 vote knp4597 | Mar 19, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 104 (next | show all)
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.
 
This imprecision is also true of the characterisation. Nora seems more a construct, a collection of female stereotypes, than a rounded character. She's a spinster schoolteacher, dutiful daughter and handmaiden to an artist. There's a nod to Ibsen's A Doll's House in both her name and the little confining rooms of her art, and references to tragic women from Virginia Woolf to Jean Rhys are scattered around. The problem and the promise of this novel lie with Nora, whose yearning for a heightened life could be pushed beyond her obsession with Sirena and her enchanting family. She needs to be less a composite of women and more herself.
 
The interplay between reality and imagination in this textual hall of mirrors makes for a deft study of character underpinned by a gripping narrative. Messud writes beautifully and wryly (a crowd of tourists visiting an art gallery with audio guides are described as "a mass that drifted slow and imperturbable as oxen") but the real achievement of this novel is to imbue every chapter with thought-provoking questions surrounding the place of women in literature, society and – most importantly – their own minds. Female anger has never been so readable.
 
There is no doubt Messud will garner accolades for her brutally honest portrayal of a kind of everywoman made deliberately vague in her physical description, and imbued with emotions and desires that will resonate powerfully with many readers ...Likewise, you cannot fault Messud’s prose. Nora’s strong voice carries the novel, and it is marked by a frankness of tone and realistic emotion. Indeed, Messud gives each character, even little Reza, such a distinct voice you can practically hear the accents, though they are written without affectation.

If only the book wasn’t such a slog. At 290 pages, it reads more like 400.
 
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Epigraph
Ognuno vede quello che tu pari, pochi sentono quello che tu se'.
- Machiavelli, The Prince
Very few people understand the purely subjective mature of the phenomenon that we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a fresh, a third, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from oneself, the lover.
- Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Fuck the laudable ideologies.
- Philip Roth, Sabbath's Theater
Dedication
For Georges and Anne Borchardt
and, as ever, for J.W.
First words
How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
Quotations
Life is about deciding what matters. It's about the fantasy that determines the reality.
I always thought I'd get farther. I'd like to blame the world for what I've failed to do, but the failure--the failure that sometimes washes over me as anger, makes me so angry I could spit--is all mine, in the end. What made my obstacles insurmountable, what consigned me to mediocrity, is me, just me.
No, obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say "Fuck off" to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. men have generations of practice at this. 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.
But who I am in my head, very few people really get to see that. Almost none. It's the most precious gift I can give, to bring her out of hiding. Maybe I've learned it's a mistake to reveal her at all.
It doesn't even occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable.
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Nora Eldridge has always been a good girl: a good daughter, colleague, friend, employee. She teaches at an elementary school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the children and the parents adore her; but her real passion is her art, which she makes alone, unseen. To be an artist is, she is sure, her real destiny.

Then one day Reza Shahid appears in her classroom: eight years old, a perfect, beautiful boy. Reza's parents are on a year-long visit from Paris: Skandar, his father, has a fellowship at Harvard; Sirena, his mother, is a glamorous installation artist apparently on the brink of huge success.

For that magical year, Nora is admitted into their charmed circle, and everything is transformed. Or so she believes. As it turns out her liberation from the benign shackles of her old life is not quite what it seems, and she is about to suffer a betrayal more monstrous than anything she could have imagined.
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