The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

When a book strikes me in a deeply personal way, I rarely want to review it. Perhaps I make myself too vulnerable by writing about it; perhaps I won’t do the author justice in posting my reaction. And yet I can’t let The Woman Upstairs slip by without comment.

At first I thought The Woman Upstairs was going to be a version of Emma Donaghue’s The Room. As if the woman upstairs was actually trapped in some house, unable to escape. And in a way, she is trapped. But, it isn’t physically. It’s by her emotions, and we leave her at the end of the book, after she’s told her story, as we found her at the beginning:  mad, mad, mad, burning up angry, ready to set the world on fire hot, and she has every reason to feel this way.

For she has unwittingly placed herself last in her great capacity to love. She has given her heart away.

It is a heart that lacked confidence, for one thing. That lacked a sense of righteous selfishness, if you will, by which I mean that sometimes it’s important to stick up for what you need, instead of trying to please everyone else.

Nora Eldridge is a third grade teacher, a single woman of 42, who loves her class, loves her father, and loves to make art. But there is a pervasive emptiness in her life, a lack of connection to anyone special, and consequently a lack of meaning.  When she first sees Reza, a boy who comes to her class, she sees perfection. And she eventually becomes irrevocably involved with him, then his mother and finally his father. She loses all sense of herself in her obsession with them, but she doesn’t notice this because for once she feels alive. She feels purpose. She feels excited for every day to reveal itself to her.

There is a tragedy, of course, as everyone who has given their heart away knows is inevitable. It is a bitter, bitter thing for her to accept, and yet? One hopes that she has finally gained the power to stand up for herself. To not give too much away, entrusted into the hands of others who cannot possibly bear such responsibility.

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33 thoughts on “The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud”

  1. My audiobook expired off my phone before I could get to the tragedy! And it's verry popular at the library. I am next in line to get the CDs to listen to the ending. I've got about 1.5 h left to listen to. So frustrating, but glad to see it will be worth it to finish it.

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  2. This book also deeply affected me (and I also find this books difficult to write about), and I'm not entirely sure why. A lot of the reviews I've seen by men don't find Nora at all believable, and I find her entirely so. This is one of my favourite (if emotionally difficult) books this year.

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  3. Wow! I loved this post!! Not only do you make me want to read this book, but I totally understand what you mean. There are some books that strike such a personal chord with me that I just don't review them. I think it stems from college and grad school when we had to take apart books to discuss them – I always felt like some of the magic was lost when we dissected the books.

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  4. I liked reading this one. I wish she's been a bit more angry in the middle sections as her raw emotions were the best part of the book. It is so good when we can understand a character and I really got this one too 🙂

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  5. I loved this book, a 5 star read for me, and totally agree with your first paragraph. It is much more difficult to write about this kind of book but, as always, you have done so beautifully.

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  6. Beautiful review! I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and though Nora was often unlikeable, I found myself understanding her and feeling for her. It wasn't long before I was fully engaged in her story.

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  7. I read this book and although I liked the story line I found Emma just too difficult to feel for. I understood everything about her but her ongoing whinging drove me nuts. I have read both positive and negative reviews about this book mainly due to her character but enjoy the fact that it does polarise people so much. To me that is a good book. I enjoyed your review of it.

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  8. I had to wait forever for this novel at our library, too. However, don't let it go unfinished! This is one book where you just have to know the ending; it's critical to the whole story.

    If you want, I'll email you what happens. 🙂

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  9. I agree. It's hard to understand some of her position as a single teacher since she did have that special guy/fiance she dumped. I know the author suggested that Nora thought it couldn't work, but how can one ever be sure? She surely cast herself fully on this family of three with no holds barred. Until it was too late.

    Tragic, really, to be feeling that much need in one's life.

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  10. It was emotional for me, in part I think because I could relate to so much (but not all) of the main character. I mean, being a third grade teacher alone was a huge connection!

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  11. I haven't read any reviews of this book by men, but it's fascinating to me that they don't find her believable. Like you, I think she's completely believable. Also like you, it is one of my favorite books of the year as well. Not because it's “happy” but because it made me feel so much. I was busy comparing Nora and myself in the ways that we are similar, and feeling sympathy for her in the way that she was so cruelly betrayed.

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  12. I'd like to read The Emperor's Children now that I've finished this one. I think Claire Messud is an extraordinary writer, and this is the first of her works I've read. It's interesting to me that you, a man, enjoyed it. Did you see Isabella's comment above that many men didn't find her believable? But then, you have a very compassionate heart from what I know of you.

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  13. I completely agree, that part of why I don't like to review the extra special books is that some of the magic wears off in the dissection. (Great way of putting it!) And, this novel was deeply personal to me in terms of her lack of confidence and longing for connection; two issues I've felt quite deeply in my life at various times.

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  14. Her raw emotions were incredible. It was the perfect example of an author using the 'f word' with complete authenticity. I mean, she didn't just throw it in there for effect, but it really showed how Nora was feeling. Her anger came across perfectly, and in my opinion, justly.

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  15. JoAnn, thank you for your kind words. So often I feel what I've written in a review doesn't justify either how I felt or accurately portray exactly what the author intended. But, this was a very emotionally moving book and can't be taken lightly. Or, ignored. I felt I had to write about it even if for my own record.

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  16. It's interesting that you say she was unlikeable. Did you find that to be true because of her need for connection? I didn't find her unlikeable, although I did often find her pitiful. Which isn't a very kind adjective, either.

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  17. I see what you mean about ongoing whining…it did become a bit much in the last third of the book. But, the ending completely took me by surprise! That, I think, made up for her upset because it was indeed so upsetting. It's true that a book which gets a lot of reaction from those who've read it is indeed a good book. It did what it was supposed to in one respect: get the readers involved.

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  18. I wasn't sure this is a book for me, but this sentence got me: That lacked a sense of righteous selfishness, if you will, by which I mean that sometimes it's important to stick up for what you need, instead of trying to please everyone else.

    WOW! I have to read it!

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  19. I'm right there with you on reviewing books that deeply affect me on a personal level. It is hard to do those. Anyway, thank you for this great review. I've had my eyes on this book because it sounds so good. Glad to hear it was a great read for you!

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  20. I started this book after reading your wonderful review! I've been a bit distracted this week, but hope to settle into some long reading sessions in the next day or two.

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  21. Enjoyed your review. I had mixed feelings about the book. Didn't trust that artist woman and her creepy husband right from the start! Very well written though. Have you read The Emperor's Children by Messud, it's very good.

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  22. I must have missed this post before… I adored this book and practically ate it up. I could never say enough good things. In fact, since it was my first Claire Messud book, I have since read all her others. 🙂

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