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3.5 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 1 September 2017
This is not a book for someone who wants a complicated plot. It is much more wide-ranging than that. We follow Nora through a single year of great significance to her but when outwardly little happens: she works as a teacher and attempts to complete her projects as an artist. At the same time she gets to know the exotic Shahid family, in Boston for a year. But the novel explores complex themes of feminism as all the women Nora interracts with, her friends, relatives and the subjects of her art, try to escape the limitations of their lives as artists. Messud writes wonderfully, excitingly, so that Nora comes alive on the page. My only criticism is of the publisher: please try not to print spoilers on the cover. As I read the pivotal scene in the novel I knew immediately, from the way the characters had been written, what the ending would be.
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on 16 September 2017
great book looking at female friendship and long term single women which I feel isn't represented a good deal in literature. Subtle but makes you see things in a new way. I'll be looking for more of this writer's books
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on 14 August 2017
I enjoyed this book, but found it a bit upsetting.
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on 12 February 2014
A great book with great pace and heartfelt emotion building to the worst kind of betrayal. I wish there was a sequel...hated finishing it.
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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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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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 May 2015
Clare Messud’s novel opens with her narrator Nora Eldridge, 42 and a frustrated artist, in a fury "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that." 300 Pages later she is “angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life”. Nora is ‘what they used to call a spinster, but don’t anymore, because it implies that you’re dried up, and none of us wants to be that.’ In between there is little plot but much good writing.

Nora’s rants are littered with expletives, SOMETIMES IN CAPITALS, which may annoy some readers, but they are pertinent to Nora’s character. The three words she wants on her tombstone are easy to guess.

The book describes events of the previous 5 years [when Nora already describes herself as ‘middle-aged’] that have caused this rage. She was a junior school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her private life dominated by constant regrets about her wasted artistic ability. Norah believes that ‘if I can just explain, all will be elucidated’ and her life justified.

A new boy, Reza Shahid, joins her class – the son of a Lebanese academic from Paris, Skander, who is on sabbatical at Harvard and his Italian wife, Sirena. Nora empathises with Reza’s sensitivity and ‘European manners’. Sirena is an installation artist who is also frustrated at not being able to continue her work. Sensing a common interest and enthusiasm the two women share a rented studio where Nora begins work on small dioramas featuring significant moments in the lives of Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson and Edie Sedgewick [?] whilst Sirena plans ‘Wonderland’, a multimedia work that may be shown in Paris.

Nora is drawn to Sirena and then Skander as we see her enthusiasm for art increasing. She convinces her friend to let her class see Wonderland and film their responses and agrees to babysit for Reza. Nora increasingly obsesses about her relationships with all three Shahids as she imagines how their life together will evolve. This is shattered when Sirena travels to Paris to oversee her installation and then plans the family’s return home.

The final chapters telescope events in America and Paris following the family’s departure and the book ends with an explanation of Nora’s anger is not a complete surprise [the back cover states ‘…. and she is about to suffer a betrayal more monstrous than any she could have imagined.’; in a novel where very little happens, this is an unnecessary spoiler].

Messud’s writing about Nora’s thoughts and impressions are much stronger than her dialogue between Americans and ‘foreigners’. There are many highlights – Nora’s relationship with her parents [once a mother dies, nobody loves you ‘best of all’] and her friends, her realisation that her youthful dreams are over, her opinions of the art establishment and her daily life at school. However, there is too much detail and explanation about the art the women are creating, it would have been better to sketch this in and allow each reader to create individual mental images. No doubt to help her American readers the author over-eggs the European/Parisian associations of the Shahids and Skander’s descriptions of life in Lebanon come straight from the classroom.

Sirena is not fully resolved, totally self-centred but strangely un-Italian [her Italian background adds nothing to the story]. The self-pitying Nora is a dislikeable narrator, not least because her commitment to art is so readily sidetracked. However, Messud deals with her self-delusion in a very realistic manner and I kept reading to the end even though the conclusion was signposted.

Mention should be made of the cover image by arcangel images which points towards the ‘Woman Upstairs’ - the unmarried middle-aged ‘quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound.‘

The book, slightly tedious in parts especially as Norah who thinks ‘It’s important, when you’re the Woman Upstairs, never to think of yourself’ actually does little else. Well worth reading unless you demand incidents, plotting, hate art or are upset by bad language.
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on 12 August 2017
The woman upstairs isn't mad enough to keep in the attic, but she's still invisible. That's how Nora Eldridge sees herself, perhaps because at 37 she realises that she'll never be a professional artist or have a child of her own. When a beautiful boy joins her elementary school class, she is smitten, not just by him, but by his supposedly charismatic parents. Of course, they are exploiting her, but she can't see what the reader can see until the very end, which I won't spoil.

Claire Messud is a very skilled writer, handling the different time frames seamlessly, but I found it hard to fully engage with this book. The people who ensnared Nora seemed utterly charmless to me and the artistic works at the centre of the story were difficult to imagine. I'd like to read more by her, but this one left me feeling rather uninvolved.
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on 8 September 2017
this is probably the best novel i have read about the female condition...& that is saying something, as i have been reading for several decades, maybe several thousand books. it is elegant, subtle, exquisitely written & 100% true. it mystifies me that many reviewers found it Boring or the narrator Unlikable; i can only suggest that may be because those readers have been fortunate enough never to have fallen into this kind of overpowering, demented, obsessive, fantasy-ridden, unrequited love. if you have done so, you will recognize the genius here & love it. if you haven't...thank your lucky stars.
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