The Woman Upstairs

By Claire Messud

(Knopf, $15.95, 321 pages)

Who is this author?

Claire Messud positioned herself solidly atop the current literary ladder to success with her 2006 novel, “The Emperor’s Children,” which was named a New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post Best Book of the Year. She also drew praise for her first novel, “When the World Was Steady” and her novella collection, “The Hunters,” finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her second novel, “The Last Life,” was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and Editor’s Choice at The Village Voice., and all her books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. She lives in Cambridge, Mass, with her husband and children. Her husband, by the way, is British literary critic James Woods, now the chief books critic for The New Yorker. Messud’s fans can only wonder how much further she can rise, and whether her latest novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” with its difficult lead character, will energize or impede her impressive career.

What is this book about?

It’s about a thwarted artist, who settles for becoming a teacher. (Those who can’t do, teach?) It’s about her involvement with a family, the Shahids, who enthrall and ensnare her in their lives. And mostly it’s about betrayal and the amazing, thunderous, purifying rage that ensues.  Nora Eldridge had dreamed of being an artist, mother and lover, but winds up merely the “woman upstairs,” a secondary player in the lives of her friends and neighbors. When the cosmopolitan, artistic and brilliant Shahids enter her life, she falls in love with them all: the Lebanese Harvard professor father, the artistic Italian mother and their darling but bullied son. When the story’s twists propel Nora (and the reader) to a shocking betrayal, that rage erupts. Hold onto your seat.

Why you’ll like it:

Messud writes with assurance and  power, issuing forth page-long paragraphs that leave you gasping for breath and also gasping with admiration. Here, for example, is how the book begins:

“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. “


This is no one’s idea of a “beach book,” unless you are the kind of fearless reader who wants your heat emanating from the pages of a book, not the summer sun. 

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “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, … 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. …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 …. 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.”

“…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,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Writing for Bookforum, Daphne Merkin says:

“If I have sounded like an equivocal admirer of Messud’s until now, let me hereby announce my full conversion to fandom with her latest novel, “The Woman Upstairs.” For one thing, it is something none of her other fiction has been, which is an absolute page-turner, from its grab-you-by-the-collar opening–”How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that”–to its final rumination on the creative uses of anger: “a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me.” For another, it may well be the first truly feminist (in the best, least didactic sense) novel I have read in ages–the novel candid about sex and the intricacies of female desire that Virginia Woolf hoped someone would write, given a room and income of her own. …”The Woman Upstairs” is an extraordinary novel, a psychological suspense story of the highest sort that will leave you thinking about its implications for days afterward.”

“…. “The Woman Upstairs” is first-rate: It asks unsettling, unanswerable questions: How much do those who are not our family or our partners really owe us? How close can we really be to them before we start to become needy or creepy? The characters are fully alive,” says John Broening in The Denver Post.

“Spellbinding, psychologically acute . . Nora’s heightened state lets her see things others miss. [Yet] how much of Nora’s fantasy is true—and to what degree the Shahids must share the blame when it’s not—is the real subject of Messud’s novel… as is often true with her work, the writer who comes to mind is [Henry] James—with his often unreliable narrators and focus on the disconnect between American innocence and European experience. . . . By novel’s end, Nora has every reason to be angry with the Shahids. But Messud also makes clear that if Nora is living her life upstairs rather than down on the main floor, she has even more reason to be angry with herself . . . Exquisitely rendered,” says Mike Fischer in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“[A] powerful psychological thriller . . . As in a fairy tale, Nora becomes spellbound by a family that seems to embody what she is missing. The power of self-deception is one of the key themes. . . . This is not just a novel of real psychological insight. It is also a supremely well-crafted page-turner with a shocker of an ending,” says Julia M. Kleinin The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

Messud’s new book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field Branch. 

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