222 of 248 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning, smart, savvy. Left me gasping!
"The Woman Upstairs," by Claire Messud, is a first rate psychological thriller that will keep readers spellbound, in the style of a classic Hitchcock film, right up until the final pages, where a stunning twist illuminates and clarifies the whole. This is a very smart, savvy novel--one that provides sustained story telling, literary, and intellectually pleasure. In fact,...
Published 9 months ago by B. Case
99 of 108 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whistling to Our Graves
Most of the reviews of the book are overly harsh or overly praising. It's a pretty good book, and as some have complained, with sections that are a little drawn out and repetitive.
The criticism I think that is without merit is that the character isn't likable. The character is an accurate human portrait and if any of us were laid to bare the way this character...
Published 6 months ago by Tanya Willow
Most Helpful First | Newest First
222 of 248 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning, smart, savvy. Left me gasping!,
The plot and characters are brilliantly constructed, the whole fully believable to the smallest psychological detail. Massud is a master storyteller and a fastidious psychological stylist. She's also an exquisite writer. Reading this book is like taking a temporary journey inside the mind of the main character, Nora Eldridge. Readers will emerge gasping at the end, fully comprehending the character they've inhabited and the trajectory of her life.
Nora Eldridge is like a lot of middle-aged people. She believes she is living a lie. She thought she'd grow up to be a famous artist, to have a loving husband, and children. But she finds herself at forty trapped in the ordinary life of a spinster third-grade teacher. She sees herself as the invisible "woman upstairs" living a life of "quiet desperation," a woman with occasional unremarkable boyfriends and a few close girlfriends--a woman stuck in the role of being a moral citizen and a dutiful daughter.
The book starts at the end, when Nora is 42 and fully enraged at life. She is so full of anger that she is bound and determined to break out of the confines of her middling existence and finally start living an authentic life. Most of the balance of the book takes us back five years, to 2004, the year Nora meets and falls in love with each member, individually, of the Shahid family. Nora first falls in love with Reza, one of her new third-grade students. He's everything she wished her own child might have been. Next, she falls in love with Reza's mother, Sirena. She is Italian and an installation artist who has already attracted significant international fame. Sirena is everything Nora wished she could be. Finally, Nora falls in love with Skandar, Reza's father and Sirena's husband. He is Lebanese and participating in a one-year fellowship at Harvard to complete a book on history and ethics. He is someone who is sincerely interesting in just being with Nora and talking with her. He is the type of man Nora would have wanted to marry.
For that whole academic year, Nora's daily life is tied intimately to each member of the Shahid family. It is a year in which she is awash in love, a year in which she feels wholly "alive in the moment, a Sleeping Beauty awakened." It is a year in which she finally feels she is living an authentic life. "Oh great adventure! Life there, before me, the infinite banquet lying in wait."
But as we close this book, we ask ourselves: what was real and what was a lie? In fact, we find ourselves contemplating the very nature of reality itself.
The book is a thriller because there is something not quite right about the obsessive nature of Nora's love for Sirena, Reza, and Skandar. It's an all-consuming, compelling, and compulsive love, something very close to the murky mental illness territory of obsessive love, yet still balanced precariously, on the edge of normal. Readers are kept in a high state of tension fearing that somehow, Nora is going to step over the line, that something will go horribly wrong. And it does! But it is nothing that any reader would ever expect.
The twist at the end of this novel is a very real unraveling and unveiling of the complexity of life. There is nothing gimmicky about it. No, this is as authentic as it gets. Finally, you will understand Nora's rage...and perhaps, absolve her.
But understanding the deep psychological intricacies of this story is only half the pleasure. This book provides considerable intellectual depth and thematic richness. Not only will readers be left pondering the nature of reality and asking: What is reality? What is an authentic life? Is reality purely subjective? Readers will also be left contemplating a number of substantial ethical and philosophical questions. What is love? What is friendship? Is Nora right when she states: "The hubris of it, thinking I could be a decent human being and a valuable member of family and society, and still create! Absurd."
I hope you will choose to discover and experience this magnificent cerebral thriller for yourself. If this review has piqued your interest, I assure you that you will not be disappointed. "The Upstairs Woman" deserves every one of its five stars.
99 of 108 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whistling to Our Graves,
The criticism I think that is without merit is that the character isn't likable. The character is an accurate human portrait and if any of us were laid to bare the way this character honestly expresses her feelings and thoughts, I think we too would be less than likable.
Years ago I heard this woman explain an entire attitude of certain women as the ``smugly married." It's easy to look down your nose at her if you have all the adornments of female success, the most important of which is that someone has found you sexually desirable enough to marry you. And once you have children, the deal is sealed. You are woman, hear you roar!
But if you got overly fussy, maybe thought something better was coming, or there was a split or almost no suitors and the shadows grow long on the dock, you do sense that you will probably never marry and most certainly now, never have children. This is of course the reality for Nora, the now spinster school teacher, whose mother who loved her is dead and whose aging father needs her. Nora is the utility person. Life's bat boy. The filler of water bottles and cleaner of equipment but never gets to play the game. The center of no one's life but the agent of many lives. A person of talent unexpressed and un-honed which time will turn to mediocrity because it was simply never developed. A person so inconsequential that those she thinks are closest to her will humiliate her if it serves their own ends. And she's angry because now she knows all this with certainty.
Naturally, she has lied to herself about this truth. It's called coping. And this is where the writer I think advances beyond a lot of readers. We all lie to ourselves about some critical truth in our lives. Unless you have caught yourself in some lie on which your identity stands, and then have had some unexpected circumstance bring you right up against that lie so powerfully that it can literally knock you to your knees, you may simply lack the experience to fully appreciate this book. A lot of people don't like the book I think because most of us just keep whistling right to the grave.
276 of 319 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An "Un" Review of "The Woman Upstairs"...,
The extraordinary Claire Messud's book will absolutely not benefit from a plot summary. It is a book that allows it's protagonist to introduce herself to you in a completely tantalizing way. Nora Eldridge will tell you everything that you need to know in short order. She is a fascinating character drawn with the fine brush and exquisite materials of a very elegant artist. Nora fancies herself an artist, and indeed, reading "The Woman Upstairs" is very much like standing in front of a beautiful, intricate, and extremely interesting painting, in an art museum. You may even want to sit down as you spend a preternatural amount of time staring at this magnificent piece...studying how the fine paint thickens in some areas and the colors resonate. You are imagining peeling back layers and layers until you have unfurled more and more of the work to find all of the hidden meaning that the artist has intended.
If you are someone that must "like" or identify with the characters in the books that you choose...don't choose this one. Nora is one of the most finely textured and unique figures in literature that you will ever meet. You will not understand her, love her, or warmly identify with her. I can't imagine why you would need to. She is a work of fine art, with a very sharp edge.
If you are adverse to learning about different and interesting art mediums...avoid this one. If you don't like paying very close attention to painstakingly well created, multi cultural, and nuanced characters, that have histories that are centered on real international events, and historical art figures who rocked the pop culture of their days...avoid this one. If you like tidy endings that don't leave you with the sense that something even more profound probably occurred...avoid this one. Messud creates an almost interactive exercise for the reader with her ending. If you don't appreciate carefully plotted but subtle psychological drama...leave this one alone.
This is wordy, erudite, and probably the best book of the year so far. But it is not an easy read. So tread very carefully...I just can't tell you any more, because I could not live with myself if I ruined this amazingly well crafted piece for any of you that are serious readers. This is literary fiction at it's very finest. But it requires a reader who is up to the task. If you are willing, you are about to embark on one of the most mercurial and profound reading experiences of your reading life.
55 of 67 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars That's it?,
83 of 106 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a long slog, but a great ending,
The problem is the making her the centerpiece of a full length novel is a drag. A short story would have been brilliant, and the ending is excellent. It just takes a long time to get there. Definitely not an engrossing read, albeit a worthy one!
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good but not great,
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ouch. This one bites!,
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Kindle Edition)I found 'The Woman Upstairs' rivetting. Despite the heart wrenching pain, I could not put it down. This novel confronts from page one when Nora tells us that she is angry. Her anger reminded me of the heroines of novels past like Marilyn French's 'The Woman's Room' and Doris Lessing's 'the Golden Notebook'. However, 40 years later I was hoping that women had been able to replace their self loathing with a much more positive self awareness. Nora's desperate search for love and solace to overcome her loneliness and pain, only leads her deeper into her own self delusion and therefore more pain. As her story unravelled, I found myself wincing at her nakedness and her neediness. As a reader, you empathise, criticise, cry along with and feel the protagonist's pain.
It is a very confronting novel and one that will possibly keep you awake at night. But it is a book well worth the effort!
42 of 54 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No redeeming virtues,
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Vintage Contemporaries) (Kindle Edition)This review is of both the Audible and Kindle versions.
Why did I hate this book? Let me count the ways:
1. The Audible narrator has the breathy voice of a Blair Brown (not a bad thing) but with a perpetual sneer. A sneer which has nothing to do with, and does not respond to, the events of the novel and which makes the unlikeable protagonist even more unlikeable. I finally quit the audio book half way through and finished the novel on the Kindle version. I have put the narrator, Cassandra Campbell, on my list of narrators I shall never listen to again. A short list of one, fortunately.
2. I can't remember encountering a more unperceptive, passive, and yet narcissistic protagonist. If I had experienced her "poor me, I cannot live my life, imprisoned by my mother's demand that I be independent, coupled with my own fear of being just that" in the 70's, perhaps I would have been more sympathetic. But four decades later, four decades of my life as dutiful daughter, wife, mother, lawyer and yes, artist, and independent woman, and four decades of models for how the protagonist could have what she wants--I am unmoved and uninterested. Of course, to have what she wants the protagonist would have to actually want, and this she is unable to do.
3. After finishing the novel. I am not wiser, or more compassionate or more informed or more human in any way. Just irritated that those hours, reading, I won't get back.
4. The novel did not end. It stopped. Mercifully.
78 of 103 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Anger May Motivate, But It Did Not Save This Book . . . .,
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The woman should have been relegated to the cellar.,
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Audible Audio Edition)If you're interested in a book with unlikeable, unreliable characters, hints of possible drama, obsession, and betrayal, melancholy and whining, endless run-on narrative from the main character, a plot that bogs down completely, and a rushed ending, then have I got the book for you! I decided to read The Woman Upstairs after hearing an interview with Claire Messud on NPR; the book was touted as a "saga of anger and thwarted ambition". While there was plenty of anger, I couldn't find the ambition part. Unmarried, childless, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge thinks, "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." She becomes infatuated with the whole Shahid family, and because of this association she resumes some of her own artistic endeavors, only to let them get crowded out due to her obsession.
There is a possibility that I didn't 'get' this book because I'm not terribly sophisticated and don't understand 'Great Artists', but it seems to me that adjusting our aspirations is something every single one of us has to deal with as we grow older. I hope I'm dealing with it in a more mature, productive, and reasonable way than the deluded, distracted, and angry Nora.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Used & New from: $11.99