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The Woman Upstairs
Cover of The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs
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Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this New York Times bestselling novel is the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and abandoned by a desire for a world beyond her own.
Nora Eldridge is a reliable, but unremarkable, friend and neighbor, always on the fringe of other people’s achievements. But the arrival of the Shahid family—dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, an Italian artist, and their son, Reza—draws her into a complex and exciting new world. Nora’s happiness pushes her beyond her boundaries, until Sirena’s careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.
New York Times Book Review Notable Book • A Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year • A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book • A Huffington Post Best Book • A Boston GlobeBest Book of the Year • A Kirkus Best Fiction Book • A Goodreads Best Book

Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this New York Times bestselling novel is the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and abandoned by a desire for a world beyond her own.
Nora Eldridge is a reliable, but unremarkable, friend and neighbor, always on the fringe of other people’s achievements. But the arrival of the Shahid family—dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, an Italian artist, and their son, Reza—draws her into a complex and exciting new world. Nora’s happiness pushes her beyond her boundaries, until Sirena’s careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.
New York Times Book Review Notable Book • A Washington Post Top Ten Book of the Year • A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book • A Huffington Post Best Book • A Boston GlobeBest Book of the Year • A Kirkus Best Fiction Book • A Goodreads Best Book

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1 Chapter 1
     
    How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
     
    I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight- A, strait- laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone— every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? 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 want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.
     
    Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish. What do I mean? I mean the second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get to my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly gone—they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and cute outfits and they care how their hair looks! In the third grade. They care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics. How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in a place where being female means playing dumb and looking good? Even worse on your tombstone than “dutiful daughter” is “looked good”; everyone used to know that. But we’re lost in a world of appearances now.
     
    That’s why I’m so angry, really—not because of all the chores and all the making nice and all the duty of being a woman—or rather, of being me—because maybe these are the burdens of being human. Really I’m angry because I’ve tried so hard to get out of the hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world, or of my world, on the East Coast of the United States of America in the first decade of the twenty- first century. And behind every mirror is another fucking mirror, and down every corridor is another corridor, and the Fun House isn’t fun anymore and it isn’t even funny, but there doesn’t seem to be a door marked EXIT.
     
    At the fair each summer when I was a kid, we visited the Fun House, with its creepy grinning plaster face, two stories high. You walked in through its mouth, between its giant teeth, along its hot-pink tongue. Just from that face, you should’ve known. It was supposed to be a lark, but it was terrifying. The floors buckled or they lurched from side to side, and the walls were crooked, and the rooms were painted to confuse perspective. Lights flashed, horns blared, in the narrow, vibrating hallways lined with fattening mirrors and elongating mirrors and inside- out upside- down mirrors. Sometimes the ceiling fell or the floor rose, or both happened at once and I thought I’d be squashed like a bug. The Fun House was scarier by far than the Haunted House, not least because I was supposed...

About the Author-
  • Claire Messud’s most recent novel, The Emperor’s Children, was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Her first novel, When the World Was Steady, and her book of novellas, The Hunters, were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; and her second novel, The Last Life, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and Editor’s Choice at The Village Voice. All four books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Messud has been awarded Guggenheim and Radcliffe Fellowships and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 18, 2013
    The gifted Messud, writing her way through the ages, has now arrived at a woman in her 40s–and it’s not pretty. Nora Eldridge, a schoolteacher who dreams of being an artist, is angry, cynical, and quietly desperate. Then she meets the Shahid family: Sirena, Skandar, and Reza, a student in Nora’s third-grade class at Appleton Elementary in Cambridge, Mass. When Sirena asks Nora to share an artists’ studio, Nora falls in love with each exotic Shahid in turn: Sirena, for her artistic vision; Skandar, for his intellectual fervor; and Reza, because he’s a perfectly beautiful child, bullied at school but magnanimous. In her previous books, Messud (The Emperor’s Children) has set individuals against the weight of kin; here is an individual who believes she’s found a vigorous self in the orbit of a dangerously charismatic family. But after freeing Nora from herself, the Shahids betray her, Sirena especially, cruelly exploiting a private moment of Nora’s newfound joy with an intimate work of art Sirena shows in Paris without Nora’s knowledge. As with other Messud characters, these too are hard to love; few would want to know the unpalatable Nora, so full of self-loathing, nor the self-important Shahids. Agent: Georges and Anne Borchardt, the Borchardt Agency.

  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2012

    The author of multiple best book honoree The Emperor's Children returns with the story of an ordinary schoolteacher whose life is electrified when she becomes involved with the family of a new student, Reza Shahid. With a six-city tour and a reading group guide.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from March 15, 2013
    In this acid bath of a novel, the superlative Messud (The Emperor's Children, 2006) immolates an iconic figurethe good, quiet, self-sacrificing womanwith exhilarating velocity, fury, and wit while taking on the vicissitudes of family life and the paradoxes of art. Nora, our archly funny, venomous, and raging 42-year-old narrator, recounts her thirty-seventh year, when she was living alone and teaching third grade in Boston after the death of her profoundly frustrated mother. Nora longs to make art but hasn't mustered the necessary conviction. Enter the Paris-based Shahids. Reza, her new student, is a magnet for bullies stirred up by post-9/11 xenophobia. His Palestinian Lebanese father, Skandar, is a prominent academic spending a year at Harvard. His Italian mother, Sirena, is an artist in need of a studio and a studio mate. She promptly recruits Nora. A confident and passionate conduit for mythological powers, Sirena creates lush gardens and jungles made out of household items and refuse. Unworldly and lonely Nora, a veritable daughter of Ibsen, builds dollhousessmall, painstakingly accurate replicas of the rooms occupied by women artists ranging from Emily Dickinson to Edie Sedgwick. Messud's scorching social anatomy, red-hot psychology, galvanizing story, and incandescent language make for an all-circuits-firing novel about enthrallment, ambition, envy, and betrayal. A tour de force portraying a no longer invisible or silent woman upstairs. (Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 27, 2013
    It’s not that elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge’s life has gone particularly wrong, it’s that it hasn’t gone particularly right. She sold out her artistic dreams for success and stability, and become angry and full of self-loathing somewhere along the way. But when a young student, Reza Shahid, and his family enter her life, Nora finds herself changing as she is drawn into the Shahids’ world. Cassadra Campbell’s narration is pitch-perfect. She shifts back and forth between the different characters, lending all of them unique voices that capture their complexity. Her first-person narration is a delightful blend of restraint and emotion that will keeps listeners slightly anxious at all the right moments. By striking this balance, she captures the hard edge of Nora—and of the text—in a way that will resonate with listeners. A Knopf hardcover.

  • Jenny Shank, Dallas News "Bracing . . . not so much the story of the road not taken as that of the longed-for road that never appeared. . . . Nora's anger electrifies the narrative, and Messud masterfully controls the tension and pace. In this fierce, feminist novel, the reader serves as Nora's confessor, and it's a pleasure to listen to someone so eloquent, whose insights about how women are valued in society and art are sharp."
  • Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal "An elegant winner of a novel . . . quietly, tensely unfolding . . . Remarkably, Messud lets us experience Nora's betrayal as if it were our own, and what finally happens really is a punch in the stomach. Highly recommended."
  • Katherine Rowland, Guernica "Utterly compelling . . . Crisply illuminated."
  • John Broening, The Denver Post "Messud has many gifts as a novelist: She writes well, dramatizes, has a sharp ear, a literary critic's knack for marshaling and reverberating themes and, most crucially, a broad and deep empathy that enables her to portray a wide range of characters from the inside. . . . The Woman Upstairs is first-rate: It asks unsettling, unanswerable questions: How much do those who are not our family or our partners really owe us? How close can we really be to them before we start to become needy or creepy? The characters are fully alive."
  • Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor "Messud is a tremendously smart, accomplished writer, [and] Nora's fury explodes from the very first sentence of The Woman Upstairs. . . . The novel gives a voiceless woman a chance to howl."
  • Kim Hubbard, People (A People's Pick) "Engrossing . . . Think of her as the woman who leans out: the A student who puts others' needs first, plays by the rules, teaches instead of doing. Through the ensuing drama, which includes one of the more shocking betrayals in recent fiction, Messud raises questions about women's still-circumscribed roles and the price of success."
  • Britt Peterson, The New Republic "Clear-eyed . . . a passionate and skillful description of female ambition and women artists at work . . . Like Messud herself, Nora knows some women need to stay on fire."
  • Amy Goodfellow Wagner, Examiner "Nora's story could also be every woman's story. . . . [She] is angry, but her anger rekindles her spirit and makes her alive, makes her determined to emerge from her upstairs world. Readers will root for Nora, hoping that her anger will sustain her to live an authentic, felt, and even ruthless life as the artist she has been afraid to be. A masterful, honest look at one woman's desire to be seen by herself--and others--for who she really is."
  • The New Yorker "Riveting . . . Messud is adept at evoking complex psychological territory, and here favors a controlled and notably unreliable style of narration. She is interested in the identities that women construct for themselves, and in the maddening chasm that often divides intensity of aspiration from reality of achievement."
  • Hephzibah Anderson, Bloomberg Businessweek "Smoldering . . . a furious account of betrayal, the true source of which is withheld until the final pages. . . . Messud crams much into her portrait of Nora's life: tart meditations on the creative impulse and the artistic ego, on the interplay between reality and fantasy and the often-pitiful limits of human communication. . . . Nora's world is piercingly evoked."
  • Amanda Bullock, Everyday eBook "You know a Woman Upstairs; maybe you are one. . . . This is not a simple story of a sidekick woman thwarted by her own fear, and the betrayal that haunts the 'Shahid years' explodes in a sudden, cruel flash, forcing Nora's long-simmering anger to boil over into a justified rage. Messud is an immensely talented writer, and in Nora she gives us a compelling, complex, and unforgettable narrator. The Woman Upstairs is a brilliantly paced story of fearsome love and obsessive longing, and the boundaries and sacrifices of what is to be a woman and to be an artist in the world."
  • Marion Winik, Newsday "Tightly focused and intensely first-person . . . Nora storms onto the page in a fury to tell us the story of a few months that changed her life. . . . The stage is set for a terrible betrayal, and the ending delivers it. The writing in this book is on fire, and the connections it makes--a Chekhov short story, a Larkin poem, Alice in Won
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