Summary and book reviews of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs

By Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2013,
    272 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2014,
    320 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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 ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Claire Messud has shown an extraordinary range in all her work and this book is no exception. At times the analogies and metaphors to A Doll's House are too overtly drawn, yet this story is much more than a well-paced, slightly creepy look at one woman's obsession. It helps us step back and take a look at weightier questions: What exactly is art? How much does one have to sacrifice to reach one's life goals? Is such a pursuit even worth it? And what happens when the best you can offer is merely mediocre?   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review Members Only (1076 words).

Media Reviews
National Post (Canada) - Kate Carraway

This is a virtuosic story of a life, except, it’s not a story of 'having it all', or not: it's a story about how abstractly and accidentally choices get made, and how simultaneously quiet and chaotic all of that wanting and getting and having and losing it all really is.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Brilliant and terrifying.

New York Times, Liesl Schillinger

[Messud's narrative framework cunningly encases the mise en abyme in which she has placed her characters. 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.

Entertainment Weekly - Karen Valby

This is an exhausting 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. Rated: A

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Ibsen's A Doll's House

Henrik Ibsen It was the door slam that reverberated around the world. In 1879, Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, published the famous play A Doll's House. The play, in three acts, revolves around Nora Elman, who balances a delicate secret while trying to save her marriage. Eventually the secret is revealed as is the nastiness of her husband. Sick of the constraints set forth in a traditional marriage – a doll's house construct – Nora decides she must leave to find, and eventually become, the person she truly is. This door slam that marks her departure might have been literal, but it has been held as metaphor for a woman breaking free from the structure of traditional marriage. Since the play criticizes the social construct of marriage, it ...

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