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?
on 14 October 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.
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.
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.
on 29 July 2014
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.
on 30 January 2014
I was predisposed to enjoy this novel because its theme is one of my favourites, the narrator's obsession with all the members of a charismatic and talented family - what you might call the Brideshead fixation. Messud adds some really intriguing and clever ideas to the genre, dealing with creativity, ambition, duty, regret, and the complexity of sexual attraction. She explores these in a beautiful prose style and with many resonant touches. It is a very mature book, she takes time to explore things, occasionally too much so, but overall it's one of the most rewarding reading experiences I've had for years. The Cambridge, Mass. setting is nicely woven into the book.
I am still pondering over the ending, which comes as a shock and turns the rest of the book on its head. At first I took against it, because it just didn't seem to be in character. I still find it saddening and disturbing, but at the same time I can see how it flows from some of the book's development. What I don't like, though, is the message that the author seems to be sending in the book's opening and closing sentences that anger can be positive and liberating. Messud would perhaps say that this isn't her message but the narrator's, and if that is the case it could be taken to show that at the end of a painful experience Nora remains deluded.
It's not often that one reads a novel that sets the mind going in so many different directions, in addition to being such an enjoyable book to read. Messud deserves all the praise she gets for her achievement.
I'll try to write this without "spoilers." It's a fascinating book, and like all good books leaves the reader with as many questions as answers. Some reviewers characterize it as a"psychological thriller" that will make clear to us only at the end (as good thrillers do) why the narrator is so angry -- and that she IS angry we know from page 1. But the thriller aspect of the book is just a matter of form -- the real interest lies in questions about the degree of self-awareness of the narrator and in broader questions about art and ethics, which require the reader, perhaps retrospectively, to think about the ways in which Nora, the narrator, is both like and unlike the adult members of the family she has "fallen in love" with -- the Shahids. So what follows are some comments on characters and their relationship in the structure of the novel (as opposed to their personal relationships):
1. Nora, the narrator, and Sirena Shahid are both artists. Sirena is an installation artist who works in room-sized spaces with multiple media; Nora creates miniature dioramas of the rooms of artists (Dickinson, Woolf) at significant times in their lives, and she recreates these rooms in loving, miniature detail. Both, then, work with space, but on a completely different scale. As the novel goes along we wonder if that difference in scale betokens any more than a difference in confidence -- Sirena "goes big," and she's actively interested in making herself publicly successful. Nora has doubts about herself as an artist and never takes the initiative to display or advertise. Sirena is the more successful artist; whether her work is "better" than Nora's is a question. When both are working, both are equally committed, but Nora is the one who can be distracted by Sirena's need for "help." Nora needs approval, and she gets it from Sirena, but not primarily for her art. The extent to which Nora is "used" by Sirena is an interesting question that perhaps occurs to Nora much later than it should.
2. The book shares with Colm Toibin's novel "The South" an interest in the idea of the ruthlessness of the artist (in both cases, women artists). Just as Toibin's artist is unreflective about her art and her motives, so are Sirena's motives and thinking about art opaque to us. We see her through Nora, the narrator's, eyes.
3. Nora IS reflective, and highly self-conscious. She reminds us that a conscious sense of one's self as artist (as opposed to just being driven to produce) is a way of signifying a common narcissism of our time -- that sense of oneself as "special" which in Nora's case goes along with a determination to be free, as her late mother never was -- to avoid the trap of mediocrity, the "fun house" of "normalcy" from which she desires escape that the exotic Shahids -- he a cosmopolitan Lebanese, she an Italian -- seem to offer. She takes her acceptance by the Shahids as a token of her specialness and of the value of her talent. But she IS, as Sirena and her husband, Skandar, seem not to be, a narcissist to the end. (Here, Messud might be seen to be developing an interest we saw in "The Emperor's Children" -- that book is also about hyper-conscious narcissists, but its mode is social satire rather than "psychological thriller.")
4. Nora, then, is both like and unlike Sirena. She is also like and unlike Skandar, an academic who works at the intersection of politics, history, and ethics, particularly as these are manifest in the complicated Middle East of the Bush-era wars. To put it another way, Skandar deals with "real life" and in his life has suffered losses because of the toxic politics of his homeland. Nora's losses are less dramatic but very present to her -- her mother's early death from cancer, as well as her aging father and aunt, for whose care she feels an obligation that goes along with her consciousness of her own aging (she is around 40). Sirena is absorbed by her art, and seems inattentive to the larger world. She calls her husband, with some wryness, just a "talker," but Skandar is thoughtful about his talk, and humane. He is the one who tells Nora that complicated situations, like the Middle East, require stories -- but he is also aware that it makes a difference who tells the story and where the story starts. Suffice it to say that Nora's telling of the story of her fascination with the Shahids -- i. e. the book we are reading -- is more Skandar-like than Sirena-like. Verbal art, as art, is downplayed in the novel by Sirena's dismissal of Skandar's talk, but Nora, perhaps not fully aware of it, is constructing dioramas that include verbal and narrative artists. She fails with the dioramas -- gives up on them, in effect. In telling the story of why that happens, does she reveal herself as an artist in a way that perhaps she doesn't recognize?
I found the book very interesting. I was reminded of Tennyson's poem "Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind" and wondered how, if Tennyson had been a novelist, he might have channelled his interest in that temperament into a character who, by the very conventions of the novel, would have had to interact with other people and a larger world. George Eliot's effort at a second-rate artist, Will Ladislaw in "Middlemarch," isn't one of her successes. Nora Eldridge, in our post-Freudian, Oprah-saturated world, is much more interesting.
on 10 July 2013
This book is now famous for its beginning: "How angry am I? You don't want to know." And then the narrator (who is the woman upstairs), 37-year old teacher Nora, tells you the long story of her anger. She got gradually angrier in her normal life - as she felt dismissed to the sidelines (upstairs) as a modern-day spinster. And then she ends up even more cheesed off as she recounts in the main plot line of the piece - about a family she meets and falls in love with. Yesterday, I heard the author, Claire Messud, interviewed on anger on the Radio 4 programme "Woman's Hour" and I bought the book because it was recommended in the Financial Times. So she is becoming something of an icon of our times in the anger world. I must be missing something as I found the tome rather obvious and tedious. And, although she did become ever-angrier, she did not really vent her anger. There are lots of descriptions of her art studio and her relationship with the family. So if you like long, slow descriptions and less of a punchy plot then maybe this is for you.
on 26 May 2013
I was initially put off by this angry woman in the first chapter. She turns out to be Nora Eldridge, age 42, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has recently worked as a teacher of 8-year-olds. But I persisted, waiting to learn why she was so angry.
Nora does not have a partner or children. She aspires to be an artist, though what she produces doesn't seem to be particularly creative or original. When a foreign family move to Cambridge for a year in connection with the university Nora becomes involved with them: she takes more than a professional interest in the liitle boy Reza, who is in her class; she then agrees to share a studio with his mother Sirena, an artist who creates 'installation'. Her obsession with this family encompasses all three members; Reza, Sirena and her husband Skandar, and seems to take over her life.
There are frequent references to 'the woman on the stairs' whom nobody notices or understand, and the 'fun house', which is meant to be fun but is actually scary and unreal, and which Nora is trying to escape. She frequently laments that she means less to her new friends than they to her, and finally discovers what she actually does mean to them!
I finished this book but found I couldn't really engage with any of the characters or feel sympathetic towards Nora. In the books I love the protagonists usually have far more justification for their anger.
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.