Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Woman Upstairs; Claire Messud


Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Publication Year:  2013
Publisher: Knopf
Edition:  print

Source: my shelves

Setting: Massachusetts
Date Completed: July - 2013
Rating: 4/5


Nora Eldridge is "the woman upstairs". She approaching 40, average looking, never married, and she works as a third grade teacher at a school in Boston. Although she has a few friends, she pretty much spends her days at school and her evenings alone in her third floor apartment.  She once had dreamed of becoming an artist, but deep down it seems that Nora lacked the confidence to take a chance as an artist. At one point she had a rather high powered consulting job, and she left that job and to become a teacher. She also spent years caring for her mother who died of cancer, and then looking after her aged father.
 
When 8 year old Reza Shahid becomes one of her students, he makes an impression on Nora. Reza clearly stands out both in dress and manner. He last home was in Paris, but now living in Boston, at least temporarily, while his Lebanese father Skandar, is a professor, on a fellowship at Harvard.  As children can often be cruel to other children who seem to stand out from the crowd, Reza becomes the target of bullies.  The post 9/11 incident where other children call him names and refer to him as a terrorist, makes Nora want to protect Reza all the more.  In fact at times, the role she assumes seems more motherly than teacherly. 
 
When Nora meets Sirena, Reza's beautiful, Italian mother, she learns that she is an up and coming "artist", just like Nora always wanted to be.  Nora is immediately drawn to her, and she begins to spend time in a shared studio with Sirena  after she encourages Nora to pursue her interest in art.  Nora is also drawn to the intelligent and handsome Skandar, Reza's father, and is crazy about their special little boy Reza, who she even offers to babysit for.  Deep down Nora resents the seemingly perfect family, their cosmopolitan flair, and the more time she spends with them, the more envious and angry she becomes.
 
The story is told from Nora's perspective and it is clear that she sees herself stuck in the role of "good daughter", and her life is the product of choices she has made.  Yes, she has friends and a decent job, but the arrival of the Shahid's only serves to reinforce what Nora has missed out on.  I saw Nora as a woman who was often smiling on the outside, but crying and about to explode on the inside. This was further evidenced in her artwork, where she focused on the rooms inhabited by suicidal and depressed women like Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson.
 
Overall, I really liked this book, but it was not a quick and easy read for me.  The characters are extremely well crafted and believable, and although similar stories have been written in the past, of the ones that I've read, none have been as cleverly plotted as, The Woman Upstairs.  I do think that readers who enjoy a lot of action and surprises in what they read might be a bit frustrated or disappointed this novel.
 

28 comments:

  1. Hmmm , the story intrigues me. I think ill add it it my wish list for a time when I'm looking for something a little deeper.

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    1. Yes, there is a lot to think about - I took my time with this one.

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  2. I know that JoAnn recently read this and really loved it but I haven't had a chance to read her thoughts yet. So it sounds like this one is a quieter novel? I have The Emperor of Children on my shelf but haven't gotten to it either.

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    1. Can't wait to read JoAnn's thoughts. I did read The Emperor's Children. It was pretty good.

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  3. Nora sounds like a fascinating and frustrating character.

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  4. Glad you liked this one. I'm looking forward to trying it sometime soon :-)

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    1. Jackie, I'd be curious to find out what you'd think of this one:)

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  5. I'm glad you reviewed this. I think I would like it. I bought another one of her novels but it seems it's not such a good starting point (The Emperor's Children).

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    1. i did read The Emperor's Cildren and thought it was good, but not great.

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  6. I loved this book! BTW, Trish hasn't read my thoughts yet because I haven't posted them. I'm SO far behind on reviews...may have to do one giant catch-up post :-)

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  7. I was way off in my thinking as I thought this one was a thriller!

    I'm not sure why but your review of this book made me think of The Chosen.

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    1. When I first heard about it I thought it was a psych thriller, but not the case.

      Not the Chosen...by Potok?? Nothing like that one.

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  8. I had not heard of this author or her books yet. I am intrigued. They both sound like titles I would enjoy. I will have to keep an eye out for them. Thanks for the review. Patty

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  9. I so very much want to read this one! You make it sound really good.

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  10. I thought this would be a thriller too. The cover is eerie! Glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. Diana, yes the cover is kinda creepy now that you mention it, but nope - not a thriller.

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  11. I bought this one for audio and I'm really looking forward to it. Sounds like an intense read.

    BTW....love the new colors and header!!

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    1. Hope you love it Staci and thanks for the blog compliment:)

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  12. There are some books that are a joy to read simply because of the strength of the characterizaiton. This sounds like one of them.

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  13. This is not something I have time for now (I see it as being a slower read) but I am interested so I'll have to add it to my wish list.

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  14. This is on some 'books of the summer lists', and yours is the first real review I've read of it. It sounds interesting, though not the mystery that I thought it was. A psychological study, it seems. I'm going to look for this at our library. I like that it includes thoughts on creativity, and choices, and jealousy. Thanks for reviewing it, Diane.

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  15. Great review, Diane! I first heard about this book on NPR and quickly put it on my radar. Glad to hear you really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on this book!

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  16. I am so thinking of picking this for book group.

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