on June 15, 2013
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 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.
"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, it is one of the best books I've reviewed all year.
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.
After reading through the reviews that have been posted before mine for "The Woman Upstairs" I find myself more compelled to tell potential readers of this book who should NOT read it, instead of who should.
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.
on May 9, 2013
I disagree that Nora "is in love with a family that feels itself rootless and homeless," or that "Nora, as a character, is a hoot." I do agree with another reviewer that it is nearly impossible to summarize this novel. Indeed, the Book Description provided by Amazon is so anemic and gives no indication of the gifts this book portends, that I passed it up several times.
I'm glad I didn't. An intense page-turner which catapults the reader to a conclusion that is unexpected, disturbing and authentic, it is a book that will remain long after it is completed.
This book is about love and longing and the extent to which we delude ourselves in our effort to rationalize relationships that are asymmetrical in prestige and social standing. Nora knows she is being used, but bathed in the light of the Shahid's attentions accepts without question what amounts to mere scraps--leftovers of their lives which for Nora are pathetically transformative. Their attentions are gifts that not only give her a sense of self-worth but afford a glimmer of the opportunities that might still available to this woman on the cusp of matronhood. Told with the benefit of hindsight, it is a devastating and poignant story about the extent to which we delude ourselves in the face of attention and desire.
Still, this book is not without its limitations. Stunningly absent was any discussion about the shame and self-mortification one would expect in the face of the Shahid's betrayal not to mention any discussion of Nora's corresponding betrayal to her family. Also, her post-hoc rage was strangely one-dimensional, inconsistent with the insight that had characterized the book up to it's remarkable denouement. Also absent was any discussion of Nora's own ambitions, on which the book was oddly quiescent--surely given Sirena's prominence as an artist one would expect Nora to be at least a little jealous if not yearn for Sirena's approval and encouragement. That the book was silent on this point implies that Nora's talent was pedestrian to non-existent (and that Nora knew it) which is inconsistent to the attraction and apparent community of interest between these two women. Notwithstanding her limitations, Sirena affections still needed to be earned and it is doubtful she would have cultivated Nora simply for her ordinariness.
Finally, I found the first pages which are nothing but a rant about Nora's anger, to be very off-putting as it came without context. I figured that if this was all the book was about, I wasn't interested and nearly abandoned it. I'm glad I didn't. A profound story of subservience, sublimation and longing, it's one of the finest books I've read in a while.
on June 11, 2013
I read. I read a lot. I am constantly on the lookout for books, new authors, somebody with some kind of talent that rises above the perfectly adequate and sometimes good writing I mostly encounter. The review of "The Woman Upstairs" in The New York Times piqued my interest, and with everything else on my Kindle finished, I downloaded it and gave it a shot.
The sense of foreboding, of creepy girl- and then family-crush was just terrific from the start, and I loved that I had no idea where the story was going to go, but I knew it wasn't going to be good, not for poor, terrified Nora. The denouement took my breath away. I physically gasped. I have not had such a visceral reaction to a book in years and I LOVE THAT.
None of the characters are particularly likable, except maybe Didi and Esther, but I have a soft spot for Jamaica Plain lesbians. Nora really is a cipher--she speaks of feelings, and wants, and desires, but there isn't really any "there" there. Her internalization of her mother's fears and her own fear of risk have rendered her emotionally mute. The whole saga of falling in love was so pathetic, because not one of them was worth the passion Nora invested.
I find myself wondering what Nora is doing now with her rage. Does it liberate her? Does it unhinge her? I am longing for a sequel!
on January 31, 2014
At first, I adored this book. Here is an excerpt from the first page; the main character, 40-year-old Nora, says, "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 in big letters on that grave, too, is F--- YOU ALL."
I was hooked! I even wrote about the same thing into my own novel, Dakota Blues, wherein my protag laments that her headstone would say, "She was a good girl." Aren't we women afraid of this, and don't you suspect it's hugely disproportionate to men feeling the same way?
At the beginning, I was entranced by Claire Messud's writing ability, and as I settled in, I was sure I would be profoundly moved by the storytelling. Some of Nora's thoughts are recognizable in the gut, in a way that is almost impossible to describe. For example, I know EXACTLY what she means when she compares life to a Fun House, but not in a good way, ending with, "I've finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House. All you want is that door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it."
Unfortunately, the book didn't turn out to be as compelling as I'd hoped, because it is, unfortunately, somewhat tedious. But it was a worthwhile read nonetheless, and here's why: the entire story is about perception; how people interpret life experiences differently. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Profoundly affected by the perception that her embittered mother had been deprived of the chance to realize her dreams, Nora deludes herself that she is living an independent life, free and unfettered by family, love, or passion. However, we see she's deluded, when her father informs her that her mother (now dead) had been a virtual tyrant, doing exactly what she pleased and directing every aspect of his life. Nora refuses to believe this. When her father laments Nora's solitary lifestyle, Nora thinks he is "unable to see, as my mother would have, that I had almost fulfilled her dream of independence..."
In truth, Nora lives an impoverished life where in the pursuit of such "independence," she avoids attachments of any kind. When in middle-age she learns that her father saw her mother as a benevolent dictator/bully, Nora rejects that depiction as her dad's delusion. But is it? Who is right? And that is a recurring theme throughout this book. What is reality? Who is to say?
Because the unwitting Nora is so hungry, she is drawn into the lives of the aptly named Sirena and her family. Through them she can trick herself into thinking she has love, motherhood, and family. Sirena is an artist, and Nora gives herself over to helping Sirena create her magnum opus. However, she is being used under the guise of friendship. At the end of the story, Nora finally sees, with shattering clarity, that she is nothing but a useful servant, and the book ends with Nora boiling with rage, determined to finally live.
In this sense it's a satisfying character arc. However, the stream-of-consciousness writing and belaboring of specific points makes it a somewhat tedious read. For example, I believe the main purpose for the character of Skandar, Sirena's husband, (Nora's frustrated sexuality aside), is to make the point that reality can be distorted and perceptions unreliable. Fine. However, Skandar goes on at extreme length, lecturing Nora. Here's an example:
"So if you're me, how you deal with that is, I'll look at how we talk about (history). I'll study the history of history, the ways that we tell the stories, and don't tell other stories, and I'll try to understand what it says about us, to tell one story rather than another, to tell it one way rather than another. I'll ask the questions about what is ethical, about who decides what is ethical, I'll ask whether it is possible, really, to have an ethics in the matter of history."
This is only about one-fifth of the discussion. It's difficult to maintain one's attention throughout, especially when I wanted to yell at Nora, "freakin' DO something, Nora, you doormat!" But the story is about a woman living an oblivious life, her perceptions distorted by her mother's influence. Nora sleepwalks through her life, finally realizing in her early forties that she has been played, and her rage is so great I'd hold out little hope that the second half of her life could be healthy, satisfying or normal to any degree.
One side-issue: some disgruntled reviewers have commented on Nora's unlikeability. Could anything be less important? This is a character study. Nora is interesting in that she represents the shriveled husk of an unlived life. Liking her is beside the point.
In summary, I'm fascinated by the idea of women sleepwalking through their lives, and then realizing sometime in the second half the error they've made, and correcting it. This book appealed to me in that sense, but I think it was too long, too self-indulgent, thus Messud risked losing the attention and dedication of her reader.
on May 13, 2013
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!
on May 23, 2013
Claire Messud is best known to reading audiences for her bestselling book "Emperor's Children". Her latest published novel "The Woman Upstairs" will delight her existing readers and will definitely grant her new admirers. Written in beautiful prose, this book got me hooked from the start. It is written in a voice of the 42-year old single woman "neither married, not divorced" who in the other time period, would be labeled a "spinster". A pretty harsh word for a woman who spent her entire life making her family and friends happy. In fact she spent so much time pleasing others that she never got to live and enjoy her own life.
When the unepected opportunity presents itself the main protagonist of this novel wishes to live her life to the fullest. She gives it all she's got -- and decides to pursue her own happiness: in love, friendship and artwork she creates. But as it turns out love, like beauty, is in the eye of beholder. The way we feel for other people is not always the way they feel about ourselves. Being hurt by such realization is one thing, but being betrayed and manipulated by someone we love - and facing it, is unforgivable.
This is what makes this novel fantastic. Upon realizing how betrayed she truly was, for years, Nora, the main character of the book turns into a rage that is all too familiar for many of us. I love it at the end of the book how she turns both her world and her life around and says: "Just watch me." Great novel.
on May 12, 2013
When I first started reading this book, I thought that I would be able to empathize with the main character, Nora. We are roughly the same age, and I too am at that point in my life when I'm realizing I won't realistically accomplish some of the things I always dreamed I would. I'm sorry to say, however, that this book made no impact on me, as I found Nora to be entirely unsympathetic. Did she miss the memo that grown-ups are responsible for their own choices? I read somewhere that the author was annoyed that a reviewer had said that she (the reviewer) wouldn't want to be "friends" with Nora. But the whole point of Nora's character up until this point is that she is just so likable, reliable, etc. Whether or not you want to be "friends" with her, the reader should at least be invested in her somehow, and I wasn't. And the awful woman she obsesses over - Nora would have had to have been a complete idiot to not see how much she was being used, despite her emotional vulnerability. On a more positive note, I was at least surprised by the ending, and thought it was an interesting idea; but somehow I just didn't buy the whole thing. And when I finished the book, all I could think was, "That's it?" I agree with some of the other reviewers that Messud is a talented writer, but I got annoyed by the pretentious asides and ten-dollar words (seriously, "preprandial," "etiolated"?). I never got lost in the story - it was always the author's voice showing off or lecturing somehow - rather than a believable narrative from a character the reader actually cares about.
Nora tells us from the start that she has assumed the life of the invisible woman. She is a woman of a certain age, compliant, studious, and unattached. She has come to know that she will" never ride through Paris in a convertible with the wind in her head." She has a few friends who know of the "ravenous wolf" within her. And into this certain life comes a family, and she falls in love with all of the.
"It all started with the boy, with Reza" from her class. Then the stunningly alive and entitled Sirena with whom she comes to share a studio. Finally the husband, Skandar who comes to play her black monk, the mirror of her soul's thoughts.
This then is the plot, and it is exquisite in its unfolding. But for me, the true soul of this book is the writing. It is lucid and replete. Multiple times I was taken by a turn of phrase that voiced a thought that I had been unable to frame. The riff of the invisible woman, who so often gets the regrets of other women incorrectly, is beautifully developed and completely on point for the world of the young and lovely. Nora, is no more likely to know herself than the people around her. With the caution, and in dwelling nature she knows, she has missed her fascination with the seductress of hope and belonging. Sirena is her perfect foil; a woman so devoid of true compassion who has created a whole lovely art installation of herself.
This is a book to savor with multiple strands of the ways we see ourselves alone or in family. Nora is in love with a family that feels itself rootless and homeless. No one in this book would be recognized by their own description of themselves, yet Messud has seen each one. Her portrayal of each soul is a literary accomplishment worthy of great worth.