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Showing 1-10 of 497 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 757 reviews
What is the nature of love? What would an individual do for her art? And what betrayal could transform a person into someone no longer invisible? Someone who could finally and truly live?

In the opening lines of The Woman Upstairs (Vintage Contemporaries), our protagonist and first person narrator, Nora Eldridge, is expressing her rage. And as she lashes out, she lists all of the traits that make her a good person: she is a good teacher, a daughter who held her dying mother's hand, a daughter who speaks to her father every day.

She is now a woman looking back at a time in her life. A time that consumed more of her than imaginable, and almost turned her permanently into the woman outside the main action. Someone who is looking on while others succeed; someone who draws her primary sustenance from the crumbs of another family's table.

The Year of the Shahids was that time for Nora, when she became obsessed with each of them, starting with the son, Reza, a student in her third grade class in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His mother, an artist, and someone Nora would like to emulate, is Sirena: beautiful, talented, and with the ability to draw Nora into her web. Yes, to me, looking on, it feels like a web. But maybe that is just my perception. It does not seem to be Nora's view. She falls a little bit in love with the husband/father, too: Skandara, a charming intellectual.

She ends up sharing an artist's studio with Sirena, and becoming a part of the family. Almost. There are times when she sinks into her invisibility again, dependent on the crumbs from their table.

A fascinating tale, one in which we see what happens to Nora during that obsessive year; we watch her afterwards, how she keeps tabs on them after they have returned to Paris, via Google alerts; and then there are the following years when she goes to Paris and sees the famous installation of Wonderland...and is stunned by a finding that will finally unleash her rage.

A truly captivating read that reveals several unlikeable and self-absorbed characters, and even the protagonist is someone you might want to warn about how things will truly play out in the end. But, like most people, she had to learn her own lessons and come to her own realizations. 4.5 stars.
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on February 17, 2014
This is the story of an elementary school teacher named Nora (Miss Eldridge by day), a single, late-30-something, unassuming woman who took care of her dying mother, calls her elderly father every day and is the one upon whom everyone else can count--but doesn't always remember. She gave up her passion for art to teach third grade and make a living. She's basically one of those invisible women. And then something happens to her to make her angry. Very, very angry. The story itself is interesting, and as I read page after page, I thought, "Something big is going to happen." The undercurrent was there. Until I read the ending, I was planning to give the book three stars. But the ending is sheer genius. And you might not "get it" immediately. I didn't. Hint: Read the first few pages over again, and you'll get it then. (Ideal for a book club if only to discuss what the ending means.)
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on October 12, 2013
I bought this book after reading that author Claire Messud slammed critics for expecting her to write characters that are sympathetic. I agree with her -- I'm fascinated by the dark secrets we all hold inside us, our least likable traits we hide from the world. Messud's protagonist Nora Eldridge is teeming with frustration, but her closest friends and family never know it. She becomes obsessed with her friend who has the two things she wants most: A child and a career as an artist. Messud digs deep to conjure up an entirely believable interior world for Nora. Reading this book was like delving into someone's private diary -- filled with wicked thoughts and small daily sufferings, the "bad thoughts" we've all quietly had. However, halfway through the book, I felt like it had all been said -- and Nora started to bore me by repeating the same frustrations over and over. There's not much of a plot to keep you interested, but I stuck with it hoping for the big "reveal." The climax, when it came, was shocking, but it wasn't enough to make this book entirely fulfilling. For creating a believable, interesting character and expressing the internal longings of humanity, Messud deserves huge praise; but as a story, this is one meal that didn't entirely satisfy.
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on January 11, 2014
I’m still thinking about this book days after finishing … And frankly I’m not sure how to begin to articulate the many thoughts this book stirred in me. It’s a story about the miscommunications and misinterpretations that make us human – that create, sustain, and destroy relationships. It’s about obsession, regret, the careful painting of facades, about duty or presumed duty to others, about the importance of art in life.

In fact, I felt the entire novel was a metaphor for the artist’s life – her struggles, her triumphs, her interpretations, her fears, her motivations. It was brilliant. Yet … Yet I had a heck of a time getting into the first thirty pages of the story. I waffled between hating the character and understanding her. And had it not been for book club, I’m not sure I would have continued. But YET … I’d have missed out on something brilliant and illuminating: a story told by an angry woman whom I often didn’t understand, but whose ruminations left me pondering. Sometimes agreeing. Sometimes shaking my head. But still thinking. Isn’t that the response good literature is supposed to elicit?

And the language … it was so often drinkable in its sweetness. If you enjoy literary fiction filled with symbolism – and really want to examine the artist’s life through story – this is a fabulous read. The dioramas created by the main character Nora, and the interactive art created by Sirena mean more than what they appear at face value. And isn’t that what art does: it offers different interpretations for different viewers. Isn’t that what stories do as well? Isn’t that how humans see the world: through our own lenses. Whose interpretation is right? Whose historical account of an event or an interaction is accurate?

While this is a “quiet” story, in that there are no huge crescendo-like scenes or car chases and lots of internal philosophical sequels, it’s such a wonderful study of human emotion and reality vs. appearances. And the ending… Oh the ending. I’m excited to discuss this with my book club and to thank them for picking it.
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on August 11, 2014
By the end of this book, it seemed like a long road to a punch line. It was obvious from the start that this woman was going to be inevitably betrayed by the idols in her head, but the How was obscured enough for me to enjoy the whole story. A few noticeable words were reused too often, sometimes the first person was so subjective as to be tedious (in the way that older people are, with no deviations from their own long-forged perceptions), and the plot points were a bit too well-timed and on the nose, with an ending that supplies a generous emotional surprise but fails to satisfy.

Spoilers: so what if Nora is angry at both the beginning and the end? This narrative book-ended with anger only seems like some gossipy story that'd she'd tell to her friend Didi after a few drinks and then forget about in a month. Because Nora, for all her emotions, seems ultimately impotent, a slave to her anger as much as she'd been a slave to her 'status' as a Woman Upstairs. The very fact that she'd resigned herself to this Type, and that it was the very title of the brook and a repeated term used by Nora in her most self-pitying moments, was the most frustrating aspect of her complete powerlessness. Maybe the book was supposed to make the reader angry FOR her, especially because, were Nora to take some action (finally) and assert her own will in some way, we would be satisfied that justice was served, or at least the ending humiliation ameliorated by Nora's personal response, her taking the anger and transforming it, Phoenix-like, into something constructive. Her merely declaring her rage to an invisible reader, especially when we know what an intense and deluded inner life she leads, reads as kind of, 'yeah, sure, see you next semester, Miss E.'

I am 26 and I could appreciate the sentiments behind the book, even if I couldn't, or didn't want to, relate to them. It seemed, to me, a lot like both art projects described in the book: emotional, even sentimental, a bit confusing, prosaic, and ultimately artless. There was zero "Oh, wow," moments for me. But if you're a middle aged or approaching middle aged woman, I think this would be a good book to read. Maybe even more so for my age group, as a warning of sorts. Don't let yourself end up here.
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VINE VOICEon August 31, 2013
This novel is a sharp psychological study of a middle-aged female teacher who had given up on her dreams of being an artist, but who suddenly gets an unexpected chance to rekindle her artistic dreams. Nora Eldridge is a thirty-seven-year-old teacher of third graders, who is quite popular with her students but lives her life as an "upstairs" woman, practically invisible to others, in her estimation, by dutifully adhering to normal behavior. Though she had dabbled in art, even attending art school, it was her dying mother who insisted that she live an independent life with steady employment.

Into this highly circumscribed life comes the Shahid family who moved to Cambridge from Paris, so Skandar, an historical ethicist, could teach at Harvard for a year. However, it is the son Reza a darling boy in her classroom and his mother Sirena, a beguiling artist who truly enthrall Nora. Nora is ecstatic when Sirena invites her to share a warehouse studio in run-down Boston. Nora can't wait to leave school every day to work on her miniature scenes, but is far more taken by Sirena's panoramic room displays using ordinary materials unusually. Sirena video tapes the reactions of diverse groups to her "wonderland."

Nora becomes integrated into the Shahid family, frequently babysitting for Reza and helping with Sirena's project. Her former cautious life is pretty much forgotten as she sees nothing but possibilities in her art and in her new friends. Yet there are doubts: can she really be an artist; does Sirena truly reciprocate in her feelings; what will happen when the Shahid's year is up?

The author captures the disruption and the exhilaration that can invade a half-lived life under the right circumstances, even though Nora is not the most sympathetic, or at times believable, of characters. The question that begins to loom in the story is where will Nora come out from her unexpected opportunity? Does she really understand her new found situation?
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on July 1, 2013
Nora is distraught, alone, feels invisible, generally dissatisfied with her life, no matter that she is a successful elementary school teacher, has friends that care about her. What counts for her is that she is not in Wonderland, not one of the seen, not authentic, not admired by the masses. Then she meets Sirena and her family and falls in love with them, she wants them to be her family. She can't live without them. They are her wonderland. Being with the special ones makes her a special one. And, of course, she discovers she has been used by them, used by unknowingly being a part of their video. And what does she end up with after discovering there is no wonderland for her- anger, intense anger, anger that enlivens her. She now can feel. She feels alive.

In an ultimate sense Nora feels entrapped by her ordinariness or as she states she is on "the treadmill of the ordinary, a cage built of convention and consumerism..." She can't get out, but Sirena got out, and she got out via her art, maybe Nora can do the same thing, her art can create a wonderland for her, just like Sirena's wonderland. But she can't be just like Sirena, but she can love Sirena and her husband and her son. She can be part of their greatness, the worshipper taking on the attributes of worshipped. Of course, Nora creates them in her idealized imagery of her wonderland. They do not love her, they tolerate her and patronize her as long as she is useful to them. She is ok for them as long as she is the woman upstairs, getting along, going along, buying into their dreams and extending this analysis as I think the author would like us to extend it, as long as she votes for them, endorses them, works for them, identifies with them...loves them. But the lie is exposed, Nora sees it all, Nora (we) know she has been betrayed. And she is left with anger, an anger that is prodigious, a colossus. So we are left.
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on December 26, 2013
I found the book a disappointment, after some of the reviews I read gave me very high expectations. For me the problem was the narrator's -- the protagonist's -- voice, which I could never quite accept. Is she meant to be just an elementary school teacher who has pretensions of being an artist but who is really not nearly talented enough? In that case the voice works -- i.e. sounds about right for such a person. But it is hard to avoid the sense that we are meant to sympathize with her, see her talents as real enough and her future as the novel ends as potentially exciting and fulfilling, creatively. I look for her to show some sign of the intellect that one would expect with such talent, for descriptions of her art (or Sirena's) that sound like the writing of an artist, but there is none. Instead there is much crudeness. I don't mean foul language, about which I couldn't care less. I mean her descriptions of her art and her world.

If that is Messud's intention; that this is just the portrait of a frustrated woman with delusions of talent then I suppose she has succeeded. But the read is so unpleasant that I wonder what the point is.
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on August 29, 2013
Warning! This book can be rather disturbing, especially for middle aged women. Having said that, it is a really good read in that it is beautifully written and delves into themes of love, fury, disappointment, and the world of art. Nora, the narrator, falls in love with a whole family and somehow expects them to transform her life of thwarted ambition and disappointment in her desire to be an artist. It is written in a way that it is easy to understand what Nora is feeling and why. It's not a comfortable read and nor does the narrative particularly drive it along. I didn't find that I couldn't put it down because it's not a page turner but it is nevertheless thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable. I highly recommend this book.
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on September 18, 2013
More than competent story-telling here. The language is comfortable but never embarrassing. The ideas are insistent and provoking. What of those hopes and expectations I had for my life? How has it come to pass that they did pass me by? Or did I reject the dreams, decline the fantasies, settle for much less, despair of being more than I am? That is the "drill" I mention - the late night interior dialogue we sometimes get caught by that is too painful and yet too redolent of our imagined self to abandon. Thanks Cecilia and Faith for recommending this read. I fear it must have been excoriating for women of your age and education too closely matched to the narrator. For me, an old man, it was an almost pleasant reminder of past imagined selves. So know that even remorse for lost opportunities will transform into fond remembrances of a youthful, even if transgressive, existence.
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