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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Woman Scorned
Nora Eldridge, the heroine of Claire Messud's latest novel, narrates her own story in this unsettling tale. Nora is 42 years old and lives alone in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a dutiful daughter, a reliable friend, a good elementary school teacher, and a part-time artist who laments the fact that she has always lacked the courage and opportunity to become a full-time...
Published 19 months ago by Susie B

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I made myself finish it
I really struggled with THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS. The novel is narrated by Nora, a woman in her late thirties who teaches at a primary school. Nora is the woman upstairs - a single woman who, in her own words, would be seen to be in her spinsterhood. At the beginning of the novel, she tells us that she is angry, but she is not the sort of person to really show it. From the...
Published 9 months ago by Brida


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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I made myself finish it, 2 Mar 2014
By 
Brida "izumi" (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Hardcover)
I really struggled with THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS. The novel is narrated by Nora, a woman in her late thirties who teaches at a primary school. Nora is the woman upstairs - a single woman who, in her own words, would be seen to be in her spinsterhood. At the beginning of the novel, she tells us that she is angry, but she is not the sort of person to really show it. From the synopsis the reader comes to the book expecting her to experience some kind of betrayal; Nora is telling us about how she makes friends with one particular small family. This family has her in its thrall; she feels motherly to the young boy, she seems to admire and want to be like the mother and she is attracted to the husband. So, it is not hard to guess that the betrayal revolves around these people. What I struggled with is that there was remarkably little that actually happened throughout this 300 page novel. I don't want to give away the 'climax' of the novel but I won't give anything away by saying that it is very poor.
This was one book which made me think at the end of it, why did I bother?
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The small suffering of humanity, 14 Oct 2013
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Hardcover)
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well written depiction of loneliness, 5 May 2014
By 
BookWorm "BookWorm" (UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
An intense and introspective novel that sometimes makes uncomfortable reading, 'The Woman Upstairs' is a portrait of the life of an early-middle-aged professional single woman in the USA. Nora is a primary school teacher who has spent all of her life being good, and polite, and sensible. With her dreams of being an artist and a mother both buried and becoming less and less likely to be realised, she develops an unhealthy short-lived friendship with a visiting artist and her family.

Messud has captured the hopes and fears and realities of such a life with unerring precision, and her descriptions of how it feels to be in unrequited love are also very vivid and painful. Although Nora is obsessed with the family, there is nothing particularly sinister about it - it doesn't feel as threatening as the word 'obsession' suggests - but the harm it does to Nora herself is clear. The story never descends into melodrama and there's nothing scary or thrillerish in the way it is written. I felt a lot of sympathy for Nora, but not pity or contempt. I suspect a lot of women will identify with at least some elements of her character, particularly her sense of duty. It strikes a particular note with single, childless women (of which I am one) but is possibly less pleasurable to read as a result.

It is very much a character driven, meditative book - there is not a lot of plot and little 'action'. To say it is heavy going in parts would be an unfairly harsh criticism, but it does approach that at times. The introspective reflections on the disappointments of life and the nature of being an insignificant person (or feeling one at least) are well observed and well written, but I tend to prefer slightly more action and dialogue to give character development rather than the lengthy monologue-to-reader. It does have an intellectual fee about it, clearly the sort of book that you'd expect to find on the literary prize shortlists (of which it's already on one).

There's no doubt it is well written, and I found it an interesting and effective story, which tackles a rather unpalatable subject in a sensitive and believable way. It isn't the style or type of story that I most enjoy, which is just personal taste, but I did still like it. So it stands to reason that readers who prefer wordier, more philosophical books will like it even better. Anyone who has experienced loneliness or longing for others with identify with what's written here - the only question is whether you want to re-experience these emotions through a well written depiction.
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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Woman Scorned, 27 May 2013
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Hardcover)
Nora Eldridge, the heroine of Claire Messud's latest novel, narrates her own story in this unsettling tale. Nora is 42 years old and lives alone in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a dutiful daughter, a reliable friend, a good elementary school teacher, and a part-time artist who laments the fact that she has always lacked the courage and opportunity to become a full-time artist. Nora is, she tells us, the Woman Upstairs: " The quiet woman at the end of the third floor hallway who never makes a sound... who, in our lives of quiet desperation, not a soul notices we are furious." And Nora is absolutely fuming.

To explain why she is so angry, Nora moves her story to five years earlier, where we learn how she becomes friendly with the Shahid family, when eight-year-old Reza, a beautiful, angelic-looking child, joins her third grade class. Reza's mother, Sirena, is a sophisticated Italian installation artist; his father, Skandar, is an academic of Lebanese origin, and they have both come from Paris, with Reza, to America for one year as Skandar has a fellowship at Harvard. When Sirena learns that Nora is a fellow artist, she invites her to share the rent on a large studio where Sirena plans to create a new piece of installation art - a project that could bring her the success she has been working towards. Nora, beguiled by the beautiful and worldly Sirena, becomes totally infatuated, not just with Sirena, but with Skandar and Reza too, spending time at the Shahid home babysitting for Reza and working long hours in the studio alongside Sirena. While Sirena works on a huge piece of installation art, Nora, in contrast, creates miniature replicas of the rooms of female artists and writers, such as: Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick. And, as the two women spend more of their time together, Nora feels her life to be entirely transformed - but, as we know from the outset of her story, Nora is in for a very nasty shock.

This novel with its first-person narration, pulls the reader right into Nora's life and into her inner thoughts and imaginings. Slightly reminiscent of Zoe Heller's 'Notes on a Scandal' and with some indirect references to Ibsen's 'A Doll's House', I found this an intelligent and well-written novel, with a sense of unease running throughout the story; however, I do have to say that I did not really care for any of the main characters in the story and, although I had some sympathy for Nora, I found myself becoming rather exasperated with her for her gullibility - but I can' t explain further for fear of including spoilers. That said, the quality of Claire Messud's writing is exceptionally good and her narrative, in many parts, was rather gripping to read. Also, I very much enjoyed the author's descriptions of the high ceilinged, light-filled, L-shaped studio rented by Sirena and Nora and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the pieces of art the two women created. So, all in all, an entertaining, interesting and absorbing, if perhaps not entirely satisfying read; but I should mention that if you like your stories to be peopled with likeable characters who behave well, then this rather unsettling story may not be quite to your taste. Either way, the ending of this tale is likely to make you feel rather uncomfortable and leave you wondering about the possible repercussions for some time after you have turned the last page.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clever novel that is a little bit different, 13 Aug 2014
I really enjoyed this novel. It’s quite original, it has something a little bit different about it. It gripped me right from the first sentence, a screech from 42 year old Nora, who as well as being ‘a nice girl’, a ‘good’ daughter, competent teacher and trustworthy friend, is at this moment clearly incandescent with rage!

‘The Woman Upstairs’ is a tale of loneliness, longing, unequal relationships, neediness, power, obsession and betrayal. It is about the secret dreams and ambitions that we hold in our hearts, it is about the person that the world sees (or sometimes ignores), as opposed to the self that we feel we are or maybe the self that we secretly desire to be. It is also about how and why we deceive not so much others but ourselves; for example, Nora knows from very early on in her relationship with the Shahids that she is setting herself up for a horrible rejection but stubbornly persists in courting her own downfall. As the title suggests, this novel is primarily about women, but I feel that much of what it says could apply also to men (others may disagree). It reminds me somewhat of Zoe Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’, although I think Heller’s book is maybe a bit more exciting and will possibly appeal to a wider audience; at times in ‘The Woman Upstairs’ it can seem that not much is happening.

The characters in Messud’s novel are well drawn and credible on the whole, although I struggled to understand why there was a gaping void in Nora’s life which led to her becoming so in thrall to the Shahids; there seemed no reason why Nora shouldn’t have had more friends, a fuller life, a partner of her own and possibly her very own ‘Reza’ if this was what she wanted. I completely identified with her feeling that her life’s possibilities were diminishing as she grew older (her ‘Lucy Jordan’ moment), and clearly, and understandably, she was also still grieving for her mother, but I couldn’t really fathom why her life was seemingly so empty. Although my sympathies tended to lie with Nora rather than with Sirena or her husband, an intriguing albeit unpleasant character who I felt we never got the full measure of (despite Nora’s friends apt warning, ‘If it looks like a maple leaf and it feels like a maple leaf and it lies under a maple tree…’). It is not always clear-cut who is in the ‘right’ and who is in the ‘wrong’; there is more than one betrayal in this clever novel.

A real sense of sadness pervades ‘The Woman Upstairs’, not only in relation to Nora and all that is wrong in her life, but also more generally, for example Nora’s father, widowed before his time and now a lonely old man in his pink and yellow flat, counting the hours until his daughter’s next visit. Ultimately though, and maybe somewhat surprisingly, the novel finishes on an upbeat note. There are a few question marks at the end, which isn’t a bad thing as it leaves us with something to mull over.

Incidentally, there is quite a lot about art in the novel, Nora and Sirena both being artists, and while this is interesting enough some of it may go over your head if, like me, you are not hugely into their type of art. I don’t think this will ruin your enjoyment though.

I highly recommend this novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places", 1 Mar 2014
By 
Sela Still "Old Bean" (Hampshire, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Or so it seems on the surface. Nora Eldridge lives a quiet life as an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Mass. She is looked on as a calm, competent and contented and neither her colleagues at work nor her family or friends guess at the boiling maelstrom of her discontent - a frustrated artist and unwillingly childless, her feelings are kept damped down until the day she becomes involved with an exotic Lebanese/Italian family. Reza Shahid joins her class and, already drawn to his charm and beauty, she then meets his mother, an installation artist : Nora offers her space in her rented studio. Their output is in great contrast - Sirena produces room size exhibits, Nora shoe-box sized replicas of the studies of famous female writers.

The more she is drawn into their life, the more her inner turmoil is aggravated. This is too quiet and subtle a book to end with an explosion but the ending is unexpected and shocking.

A very interesting read.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.', 6 Sep 2013
By 
Purpleheart (UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Hardcover)
is the opening line of this novel. Nora Eldridge starts the novel with a glorious full-on rant. She's the 'good girl', the 'straight-A, strait laced, good daughter,' who did all the right things and yet didn't get the just rewards and who now recognises herself as a middle aged fury. The reason for her anger is both general - 'all the making nice and all the duty of being a woman' - and specific. The second chapter leads off 'It started with the boy. With Reza' and the love story starts - because Nora falls in love with a whole family; the long lashed boy, his mother, Sirena, the rising artist and his father, the academic. We know from the excoriating first chapter that things will not end well, that there will be betrayal but Messud is a good writer and seduces us with the exotica of the family just as Nora herself is seduced.

I was very impressed with Messud's best known book The Emperor's Children, which sent me back to her earlier novels and novellas. I think she is an excellent writer and capable of both the large and small scale. Emperor's Children was broader sweep and dealt with three glittering New Yorkers at the turn of the century pre and post 9/11. This novel focuses on Nora's interior life (I saw her speak at my local book shop and she said that she had wanted to explore that in a novel) and gives some insight into the life of an artist. Nora makes dioramas of writers' rooms, exquisite and tiny but unseen by the public. She finds herself increasingly drawn into supporting Sirena's ambitious installations and helping her flowering worldly success.

There has been some nonsense criticism of this novel not having a likeable protagonist which Messud defended robustly. I did find Nora solipsistic and seemingly unaware of the reciprocal nature of the betrayals in the novel. However, I don't need to find a character likeable to be fully engaged, which I was throughout the novel. I found Messud's twist at the end somewhat of an anti climax but enjoyed the ride.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars masterful story telling retaining degree of suspense to the end, 13 July 2013
Unusually for me, I immediately re-read this book as soon as I had first read it. It is rich and dense in 'clues' throughout and retains an element of suspense until the end. Although if is not a traditional mystery tale, it is very uncertain as to what will happen at the end. For a while, it seems that she may take the easy way out and end it very messily but, thankfully she avoids this.

whilst it does have a shocking end, it is psychological rather than violent and is also srangely uplifting

I'm stiil thinking hard about it a few days after the second read and trying to sort out the tangled web of relationships and work out who caused what and where 'fault' really lay and what it reaally means to be an artist as well as lots of other issues.

None of the protagonists are especiaally attractive or generate much empathy but this only makes the unfolding of the story all the more compelling as it makes it hard to 'take sides'

truly thought-provoking and rewarding read
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book of the year, 29 July 2014
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Best book I've read this year. Beautifully written in the sense that the controlled voice of the protagonist is maintained. The massive (for her) emotional adventures in relation to the new family in town are reported in retrospect through her sense of hurt. The plot is relevant to anyone who has found themselves taken up with a new enthusiasm for an unusually compelling person, who adds depth and meaning to life. The novel reflects on the nature of friendship and of creativity. The worth of art and of human relations are set against each other by the protagonist - who may not reflect the reader's views. I found the ideas fascinating and packed into a believable, very readable context.
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2.0 out of 5 stars How angry am I? You don't want to know., 19 Nov 2014
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Woman Upstairs (Paperback)
It’s not that I can’t sympathise with her analogy that life for women is like a fun-house – one of those places where you walk through a yawning mouth and into a space where your reflection in the mirror is of some bizarre look-alike, where the ceiling comes down to meet you and the floor threatens to buckle and the wind whistles up your dress. Life is a trap into which so many of us fall. Our protagonist makes her analogy work hard. But it doesn’t compute. She has no children. She is a successful elementary teacher, respected. The analogy isn’t sinister enough – easily refuted I had to stretch to even give it leg room and then it fell at most of the hurdles she set up. To lead that kind of claustrophobic apology of a life one would have to drain oneself of all individuality. An “American spinster’s” life, blanched of excitement, her negativity, lack of spirit, lack of imagination. Nora Eldridge doesn’t convince. She is so grudging that she resents the family photographs on her elderly relatives’ shelves.

Do I believe that someone so self-centred and devoid of energy could have the soul of an artist? Well perhaps – the artist gives up her energy in the cause of art. But Nora Eldridge sounds like too much of a drip. “I’ve grown up with my mother’s longing and never found a way to fulfil it.” What kind of dreary nonsense is this? She wants to paint or make installations but: “I couldn’t bear to be a failure. It seemed worse to try and fail than not to try.”

It made me impatient, but I did persist to the end. I don’t know why because I knew from the beginning I didn’t like Nora. The other characters are a family. First Nora falls in love with the child, then the mother. They are an attractive set of people but everything takes place in Nora’s dream world. Her heavy lack of spirit casts a pall, even over the final betrayal.
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The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Paperback - 2 Jan 2014)
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