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Overview Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents--dashing Skandar, a half-Muslim Professor of Ethical History
born in Beirut, and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist--have come to America for Skandar to teach at Harvard.
But one afternoon, Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who punch, push and call him a "terrorist," and Nora is quickly drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family. Soon she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora's happiness explodes her boundaries--until Sirena's own ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.
Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, this urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill--and the devastating cost--of giving in to one's passions. The Woman Upstairs is a masterly story of America today, of being a woman and of the exhilarations of love.
Reviews First, I should tell you that Claire Messud and I have a complicated history. To be blunt: I hated her last book, The Emperor's Children. It made me so angry. Looking back at my review, I see that perhaps a lot of this wasn't exactly fair-she hit some kind of a nerve as relates to 9/11 in this New Yorker's heart. I wrote the review in anger, but it was an honest reaction to the book, and I stand by some of the more pointed criticisms of characterization and comma use. So you can understand, I'm sure, that I was hesitant to read her new novel. Well, I was in for a huge surprise.
The novel opens: "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that." It proceeds to use the 'f' word twice on the first page alone (once in all caps), and the narrative propels forward as if driven by rage itself ... These are the words that come to mind about "The Woman Upstairs": Mesmerizing. Elegant. Nuanced. Unique. A remarkable evocation of loneliness. Powerful character-driven fiction. Not for everyone because not a lot happens in this novel. Definitely not high plot. As if a video camera followed the woman upstairs around for a year, watched her attach to a family that seems to have everything she wants, or needs, and watch her abandon her own needs to forfeit herself to them. Such a sense of longing. Heartbreaking. And yet, we know, we hope, she will use this experience to come down those stairs. Move forward in a life that is otherwise stalled. One year in her life, but four years forward, and two years back. From her mother's death until her own rebirth.
I have heard that depression is anger turned inwards and, if so, then this character embodies the high-functioning depressive, who desperately needs to get in touch with her anger. Lots of psychology here. We all know someone like her, and we may have known the people - the Italian artist, the Lebanese intellectual, and their son - who invade her life and life her spirits, but we know, even if she does not, that this elevation is short-lived and much more about them than her. Few novels allow us to experience what Claire Messud shares with us. It's just gorgeous, start to finish. I will never forget the woman upstairs, or the family who nearly destroys her, but ultimately brings her back to life. Claire Messud has been writing elegant fiction from the first, but I think this is her very best. WOW. Nora Eldridge is the woman upstairs, the invisible one. You might see her bringing in shopping or hear her cats if she has any. You think she was a good girl, the one who never caused trouble, but inside she is filled with a fury and rage you’d never guess. She is a third grade teacher who once banked on being a successful artist. The artist part of her is still there but it’s in the back. In the front is the invisible woman, 42 years old and single. “The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn.”
Nora knows the minute that Reza Shahid walks into her classroom that he is special, that one day he will be the boy that all the girls want. She feels a closeness and a tenderness towards him that is above her feelings for her other students. When she meets Reza’s mother, Sirena, she feels that same closeness. On top of that, Sirena is an artist, too. When Sirena suggests they rent a studio together, Nora is thrilled and her life begins to enter a time warp of ecstasy.
Sirena’s husband, Skandar, is also special to Nora. The whole Shahid family feels like magic. She thinks and fantasizes about them and their lives. She feels like part of their family. Indeed, they give her some reason to feel this way. They ask her to babysit, they share art talk in the studio, and Skandar always walks her home after babysitting.
It is interesting that Sirena, an artist of some up-and-coming fame works with big installations. The current one is called Wonderland and is based partly on Alice in Wonderland and partly on a Lebanese myth. Nora makes small dioramas that are exact replicas of the rooms of famous female artists – Virginia Woolf,
Alice Neel, Edie Sedgwick. The pieces are minute and representational, but lovely and mythical. While Sirena flies with her work, it feels like Nora draws herself in and makes herself more grounded.
Nora’s life is filled with the Shahids, day and night. They are her life and she weaves herself into theirs as she imagines her status with them. Is she obsessed? One might think so, or is she in love? That, too, is valid. Nora loves each of the Shahids and the family as one. She also loves them each in a different and profound way. Reza represents the child she never had, Sirena the artist she’s never become and Skandar, perhaps the lover she does not have.
The Shahids are in Cambridge only for one year and then will return to Paris once Skandar’s visiting professorship is finished. While in the U.S. Sirena is able to attain a good gallery and make plans for the unveiling of her Wonderland in Europe. Nora shares her joy though she never seeks out a gallery for her own work nor does Sirena ever offer to be of assistance.
Nora flies that year on her relationship with the Shahids. It is a different time than she’s ever had, artistically, intellectually and emotionally. Once they leave what will become of Nora? The story is all told from Nora’s viewpoint over a five year period and we are very aware that she is the historian. Claire Messud’s writing is lovely and poetical. The reader can’t help but be drawn in and mesmerized. I was ‘in’ this book the whole time I was reading it. It is a wonder in itself. I thank you Ms. Messud for this gift. This is one of the best books I have ever read. The Woman Upstairs is such a brilliant novel about anything but that typical woman upstairs. Women can relate to this woman at whatever stage of life we might be. We know her. We recognize aspects of her in us and in our aspirations present and past, realized and forsaken. She’s not really hiding or sulking or quiet. An elementary schoolteacher who truly wanted to be an artist, she just made more realistic choices in her life but continued to paint and practice her art on her own. She says of herself—“it explains so much about me, too, about the limits of my experience, about the fact the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world.”
Just because you don’t sell or show your art are you not an artist? How many creative people manage to become mega successful or make money from their talents? Usually someone has to have a day job or some sort of non-creative work to make a living and then do what one loves on her own time. If all works
out well then she gets to do what she loves and make money from what she loves too.
Nora wanted romance and her own children but didn’t have them for one reason or another. She’s been doing the right things all along and now finds herself rage-fueled and frustrated and seeing in others what she wants for herself. She meets the Shahid family—a dreamy Euro-MiddleEastern blend of artistry and intellect– and falls hard for them. Reza is a student in her class, his mother Sirena, a talented artist. A working artist. One who exhibits her work in Paris and sells her art which people write about and discuss. They’re here for a year as Skandar, Sirena’s husband, teaches at Harvard.
While she might want to be Sirena and be with Skandar, she falls for each of them in different ways and perhaps wants to just infiltrate the family and be accepted by them and loved by them as she grows to love and depend on them. Sirena asks Nora to share a studio with her. No one may ever see Nora’s artwork as they’ll see Sirena’s grand Alice in Wonderland extravaganza.
Nora finds validation in this as she creates her miniature doll houses representing the inner lives of Virginia Woolf [“her last note propped upon the mantelpiece”], Alice Neel [“the sanatorium suicide ward . . . to make my Alice’s room reflect only the nadir, her darkest isolation, when she felt forsaken by life and by art and by love.”], Edie Sedgwick [“For Edie, beautiful Edie, the strangeness was that the joy was already in the room, even as it was killing her.”]. Emboldened one night she dresses as Edie Sedgwick, becomes Edie and goes out, gets terribly drunk, returns to the shared studio and enters Sirena’s Wonderland in a blissful daze. [“I was in my life, in life. I was alive.”]
What’s enough for Nora? She wants an all-encompassing friendship with this family. Nora wants them to think about her and value her as much as she’s come to value them. But they don’t. She’s just an infinitesimal part of their dynamic international lives. When Nora discovers that she’s just another American that they’ll leave behind in several months it starts to corrode her soul. Years later the family still haunts her dreams. Angered by being abandoned, Nora plans a European trip around a visit to the Shahids in Paris. The near perfect ending will both shock and satisfy readers.
I first discovered Claire Messud with her engrossing novel The Emperor’s Children where three female friends navigate Manhattan while managing their
complicated careers and relationships post-9/11. Sheâ€™s a strong feminist voice and creates compelling characters. As with The Emperorâ€™s Children, The Woman Upstairs drew me in from page one
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