Reviews for Woman Upstairs

Booklist Reviews 2013 March #2
*Starred Review* In this acid bath of a novel, the superlative Messud (The Emperor's Children, 2006) immolates an iconic figure--the good, quiet, self-sacrificing woman--with 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 dollhouses--small, 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." Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 May
Creative passions reawakened

Nora Marie Eldridge, the protagonist of Claire Messud’s taut and psychologically astute fourth novel, is an angry woman, a fact she reveals in its first paragraph. For her, “to be furious, murderously furious, is to be alive.” Over the course of the story, Messud excavates the roots of that anger with sure-handed patience, creating a complex narrative that painstakingly interweaves themes of obsessive love, feminism, creativity and the nature of art.

Putting aside her dreams of an artistic career, unmarried and childless Nora has settled, in her late 30s, into a pedestrian life as a third-grade teacher in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, public school. Her outwardly placid routine is upended when Reza Shahid, the son of a Lebanese father and an Italian mother spending the academic year in Boston, arrives from Paris and enters the class. Nora’s affection for the 8-year-old boy deepens when he’s victimized by playground bullies, but that’s nothing compared to the intensity of feeling that surfaces when she discovers his faintly exotic mother, Sirena, is an accomplished artist.

The two women’s decision to rent a shared space where Nora can work on dioramas featuring Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, the troubled artist Alice Neel and Andy Warhol acolyte Edie Sedgwick, while Sirena constructs a career-defining installation based on Alice in Wonderland, both strengthens and complicates their relationship. That web becomes more tangled when Nora senses her growing fascination with Sirena’s husband, Skandar. Nora’s account of these multiple attractions slowly reveals how she is transformed by the role she plays in this intricately choreographed dance.

If there’s any shortcoming to this artful story, it’s that Messud is better at ratcheting up the tension among these characters than she is at resolving it. But through the psyche of its complicated protagonist, The Woman Upstairs effectively raises serious questions about how we come to live the lives we do, and how we respond when our dreams of how those lives might be different are thwarted. When a novelist of Messud’s talent invites us to consider such questions, we can be certain they’re ones worth pondering.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 March #1
A self-described "good girl" lifts her mask in Messud's scarifying new novel (The Emperor's Children, 2006, etc.). "How angry am I?" Nora Eldridge rhetorically asks in her opening sentence. "You don't want to know." But she tells us anyway. Nora is furious with her dead mother, her elderly father and her estranged brother, none of whom seem to have done anything very terrible. Basically, Nora is furious with herself: for failing to commit to being an artist, for settling for life as a third-grade teacher in Cambridge, Mass., for lacking the guts even to be openly enraged. Instead, she is the woman upstairs, "whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell." So when the exotic Shahid family enters her life in the fall of 2004, Nora sees them as saviors. Reza is in her class; after another student attacks and calls the half-Lebanese boy "a terrorist," she meets his Italian mother, Sirena, the kind of bold, assertive artist Nora longs to be. They wind up sharing a studio, and Nora eventually neglects her own work to help Sirena with a vast installation called Wonderland. She's also drawn to Skandar, an academic whose one-year fellowship has brought his family to Cambridge from Paris. "So you're in love with Sirena, and you want to fuck her husband and steal her child," comments Nora's friend Didi after she confesses her intense feelings. It's nowhere near that simple, as the story unfolds to reveal Sirena as something of a user--and perhaps Skandar too, though it's unwise to credit Nora's jaundiced perceptions. Her untrustworthy, embittered narration, deliberately set up as a feminine counterpoint to the rantings of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, is an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms. Messud persuasively plunges us into the tortured psyche of a conflicted soul whose defiant closing assertion inspires little confidence that Nora can actually change her ways. Brilliant and terrifying. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 December #1

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.

[Page 58]. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Express Reviews
The setup in this elegant winner of a novel seems so obvious; aren't warning bells sounding for Nora Eldridge? A middle-aged Boston-area elementary school teacher and artist manqu who cuttingly describes herself as "the woman upstairs"--someone who can be depended on to be dependable--Nora is enthralled when sweet, smart, charming Reza Shadid enters her class. His Lebanese-born father has left a post in Paris to teach in America for a year, while his Italian-born mother, the appropriately named Sirena, is an artist of some renown. Together, this worldly, glamorous family seduces Nora, with Sirena especially culpable. She talks Nora into sharing a studio with her, and soon Nora is opening to all the possibilities life has to offer--possibilities she thought were dead and gone forever. Verdict This quietly, tensely unfolding story is related in retrospect, so we know from the start that it has ended badly for Nora. The only question is how. Remarkably, Messud (The Emperor's Children) 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.--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 March #3

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. (May)

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