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The Woman Upstairs (2013)

by Claire Messud

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1,62411910,854 (3.36)103
Fiction. Literature. HTML:

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

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    jayne_charles: Not many parallels between these two books plot-wise, but they had a strikingly similar tone and while reading one I was constantly reminded of the other.

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Showing 1-5 of 116 (next | show all)
One of the central tragedies of adulthood is that virtually no one reaches the childhood potential promised to them. There's simply only a handful of spots to truly be a protagonist in the national narrative. It was a blow to me to learn that I could become a great physician and a pretty decent scientist, but that it's extremely unlikely that I'll ever be known outside of my field. And it's particularly hard because once you make it to a field, you get to rub shoulders with the true giants and feel how little you are.

And that, in a nutshell, is the story of Nora Elridge. Looking at her life in her 30's and realizing that while she's a great teacher and an OK artist, she'll never make a name for herself and other people will always be better and more famous than her. And Nora sacrifices being the protagonist in her own, tiny little story, for being part of something grander. To pretend that this is a novel narrative would be foolish -- and indeed, Messud acknowledges that by directly quoting the famous Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock ("No, am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; am an attendant lord, one that will do...") -- but it's such a central narrative to humanity that I think it's worth revisiting.

What makes Messud's take on this tale particularly noteworthy are two things: 1) Messud's command of the English language, which is simply incomparable. She never weighs the story down with prose, but each sentence is precise and beautiful. And 2) telling this narrative from a female lens.

I've learned that women are being asked to do too much, so even when I feel like I'm doing a good job at work, I feel like I'm not being the protagonist in my parenting story (since parenting is supposed to be a narrative of lovingly hand-crafted...everything, every moment); when I feel like I'm doing a good job parenting, I feel like I'm not being the protagonist in the canonical scientist story, where science is in all-consuming passion; and when I'm doing either, I feel like I'm losing the plot of the story of being a part of a community of friends and neighbors, or being a leftist who has time during business hours to call my senators or being a book hobbyist, or or or. And yet, I find very few books that resonate with this tension the way that The Woman Upstairs does.

I also think that reading the reviews for this book on goodreads is a pretty incisive tale on why this book is needed: women who don't make it to becoming the protagonist are expected to be Nice above all things. That, in fact, is Messud's point: women have to either be a central protagonist, or they have to be the Woman Upstairs, who follows gender norms, and is nice and helpful and has no personality or drive. It's biting and true. And yet, many reviewers here seem to fault Nora Elridge for not constraining herself to that role -- quite exemplary of how this is a conversation that needs to happen. ( )
  settingshadow | Aug 19, 2023 |
The opening chapter in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs sets an angry, bleak tone: the narrator, Nora Eldridge, is very, very angry, dropping the word “fuck” like so much birdseed in the course of a rant that is as engaging to read as it is excruciating to realize the tenuous state of this character’s mindset as she begins to set down a record of what transpired to make her so hurt, jaded, and on the brink of despair. And I certainly have no issue with the word “fuck”: it’s just bizarre how often it’s used in the opening chapter given how little it’s used later on, something I consider below with regard to how the narrative never completely circles back around in a logical or satisfying manner.

To her credit, Messud is very acute with the psychological portrait she paints of Nora: there is always a danger an author encounters when employing the first-person narrative, especially when there is such a skewed and utterly biased narrator as is the case here. As “the woman upstairs”—“the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound”—Nora is the “other woman”: not the pretty one, not the talented one, not the exceptional one, but the other one. Messud’s slow pacing allows the reader to access Nora’s thought processes and to identify with her feelings of isolation, marginalization, and political and social unrest. The other woman is, after all, “completely invisible”: “The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn.”

However, Messud never succeeds at bringing Nora back to the angry state she is in when we first encounter her, nor does Nora convey how “to make it burn” when it comes to her invisibility; instead, The Woman Upstairs is a novel that simmers, boils, and almost, almost bubbles to an eruptive crescendo, but yet never completely gets there. And this could well be Messud’s intent: but given the anger in the opening chapters, Nora’s character does not come full circle to embrace that initial mental state, a state that is supposedly après her Freudian family romance with the Shihads—an encounter that defamiliarizes her unwitting embrace of the conceptual “woman upstairs” figure and problematizes her world at the level of desire, family, artistry, and even civilian grief.

One of the most interesting aspects, but also the most cumbersome, is Messud’s analysis of race relations after 9/11, but at times this feels a bit exploitative, e.g., “the Norwegian maple in its crimson-tinged ball gown, ruffled agains the spotless 9/11 sky” makes little sense as this is taking place in 2004, hence the exploitative use of some 9/11 references scattered throughout. And although Nora is obviously very discontent with an America falling into the hands of George W. Bush yet again—and while the conflict in the Middle East, Lebanon in particular, is always underneath the narrative surface—the political aspect to Nora’s unrest is never fully fleshed out, resulting in a melodrama instead of something more holistic. Messud does hint at the complex matrix of interrelated conflicts at work in Nora as indicative of a larger social (and gendered) malaise, but the sense of liberal guilt and privilege Nora finds herself ensconced with, while suggested to be one of the underlying causes of her perverse insertion into the Shahids’ lives (and vice versa), is never considered to the extent that it should if Messud means to make this a broader attack on an American mindset so isolated from the world at large.

Still, this is a compelling and intriguing read, one that brought to mind Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal almost right from the beginning. Whereas Messud is more interested in race relations and Heller in class relations, and obviously the former with America while the latter tackles Britain, both authors are working with a similar “spinster narrative” coupled with a Freudian family romance, narrated by wonderfully deranged and yet highly incisive and relatable narrators—if we choose to see our own psychological flaws in them, that is. For an example of how this is done in a marvelously unflawed way that renders the psychological as much the focus as an underlying social commentary, I would strongly direct people to read Heller’s novel without any hesitation. ( )
  proustitute | Apr 2, 2023 |
All those of us who haunt the Op Shops know the feeling... that title that beckons from the shelf? Why is it familiar? Is it already on our shelves? Is it a book desired but not purchased because of fleeting attempts to rein in book-buying habits? Did it win a prize? Or (#OminousWarningBells) is it one of those over-hyped books that are best avoided?

Well, at $2.00 per book in my local Salvos store, it's worth the risk. The money goes to a good cause — and I can always recycle the book anyway...

As it turned out, I hadn't wasted my money. Claire Messud's fifth novel The Woman Upstairs isn't IMHO great literature and it doesn't have anything particularly profound to say, but I enjoyed reading it. And when I looked it up at Goodreads, I found that it had gathered a good deal of international attention. It was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; the Arab American Book Award Nominee for Fiction; the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction; the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the International Dublin Literary Award, and (less convincingly) the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction.

Reminiscent of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal (2003) in its portrayal of a needy teacher whose life seems derailed by inertia and thwarted hopes, The Woman Upstairs features Nora Eldridge, a good and worthy soul and a popular teacher at an elementary school in Cambridge Massachusetts. Privately, she is an unrecognised artist, a maker of Lilliputian dioramas portraying the tragic worlds of subjects like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick.
...I was making a tiny replica of Emily Dickinson's Amherst bedroom, about the size of a boot box, each floorboard in place, the re-creation of her furnishings exact and to scale. Once I'd made her room, and made her, as perfectly as I could, in a white linen nightie with ruffles, my aim was to set up circuitry so that my Emily Dickinson might be visited, sitting up by her bed, by floating illuminations — the angelic Muse, her beloved Death, and of course my gilded mascot, Joy herself. (p.77)

It was to be a series. Virginia Woolf putting rocks in her pockets; Alice Neel in the sanatorium to which she was committed at 30 years of age; and Edie Sedgwick in Warhol's Factory. Nora toys with the series title A Room of One's Own? She thinks the question mark is the key...

So, Nora has a career; a creative pursuit albeit one with morbid tendencies; a couple of great friends including the irrepressible Didi, and a (somewhat distant) family. But that is not enough. She wants more. In the age of liberated women, she wants to conform to her own expectations of love, family and children. And why not? Why should she be content to be unmarried and lonely, and to ache with longing for a child of her own to love?

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2022/12/23/the-woman-upstairs-2013-by-claire-messud/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | Dec 22, 2022 |
I have to admit I chose this book from the library because I recognised the staircase on the cover, which for some reason is back-to-front - it seems apt though, as the story didn't go in the direction I expected it to either. It's an interesting read, with a well-thought out main character who wasn't always likeable (she's the same age as me and I got tired of her moaning about how so-very-old she was) but she was intriguing nonetheless.

The prose was very well-written, although there were more descriptions of things (sometimes irrelevant to the story) than there were actual events. At one point I did almost stop reading, but carried on as I wanted to read what the terrible betrayal was going to be. When I got to that point, I felt a bit let down. I found it hard to find any sympathy for the main character. She was the same at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, whereas the family she became obsessed with developed as the story went on. An interesting story that kept me reading, although it's difficult to say that I liked it. ( )
  Triduana | Jan 25, 2022 |
At first I enjoyed reading this book. I liked Nora Eldridges anger, the minute psychological details, the descriptions of people and places, the references to art and literature, etc. As the story progressed I got sick and tired of Nora being on the pity pot all the time. The whining seemed endless. Then there was a bestsellerish twist in the plot, which was psychologically unconvincing. I am not sure whether to give it two or three stars. Maybe there should be two and a half stars. ( )
  Marietje.Halbertsma | Jan 9, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 116 (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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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
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.
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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Fiction. Literature. HTML:

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


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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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