From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor’s Children, a masterly new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed and betrayed by a desire for a world beyond her own.
Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long ago compromised her dream to be a successful artist, mother and lover. She has instead become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her life arrives the glamorous and cosmopolitan Shahids—her new student Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale, and his parents: Skandar, a dashing Lebanese professor who has come to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard, and Sirena, an effortlessly alluring Italian artist.
When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies, Nora is drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family; she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora’s happiness explodes her boundaries, and she discovers in herself an unprecedented ferocity—one that puts her beliefs and her sense of self at stake.
Told with urgency, intimacy and piercing emotion, this brilliant novel of passion and artistic fulfillment explores the intensity, thrill—and the devastating cost—of embracing an authentic life.
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 to enjoy it. I just wanted to find the way out. But the doors marked EXIT led only to further crazy rooms, to endless moving corridors. There was one route through the Fun House, relentless to the very end.
I’ve finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House. All you want is that door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it. No: let me correct that. In recent years, there was a door, there were doors, and I took them and I believed in them, and I believed for a stretch that I’d managed to get out into Reality—and God, the bliss and terror of that, the intensity of that: it felt so different—
until I suddenly realized I’d been stuck in the Fun House all along. I’d been tricked. The door marked EXIT hadn’t been an exit at all.
Excerpted from The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Copyright © 2013 by Claire Messud. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Fantastic. . . . Burst[ing] with rage and desire. . . . Messud writes about happiness, and about infatuation—about love—more convincingly than any author I’ve encountered in years.” —Lionel Shriver, NPR
“A liberation. Messud’s prose grabs the reader by the collar. . . . In this ingenious, disquieting novel, she has assembled an intricate puzzle of self-belief and self-doubt, showing the peril of seeking your own image in someone else’s distorted mirror—or even, sometimes, in your own.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A trenchant exploration into the mercenary nature of artistic creation. . . . Destined to become a cultural benchmark.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Fantastically smart.” —The Washington Post
“Riveting. . . . Messud is adept at evoking complex psychological territory. . . . 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.” —The New Yorker
“The Woman Upstairs dazzles. . . . [Messud is] among our greatest contemporary writers.” —The Miami Herald
“A work of such great emotional velocity.” —Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice)
“A liberation. Messud’s prose grabs the reader by the collar. . . . She has assembled an intricate puzzle of self-belief and self-doubt, showing the peril of seeking your own image in someone else’s distorted mirror—or even, sometimes, in your own.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Exhilarating. . . . After the final powerful paragraphs, in which Nora howls in galvanized fury, throw it down and have a drink, or a dreamless nap. Don’t be surprised if you then pick it back up and start all over again. A” —Entertainment Weekly
“Startling: a psychological and intellectual thriller.” —Los Angeles Times
“Mesmerizing. . . . While it was Messud’s achingly beautiful characters crystallizing midlife that drew me in, it was her grotesque portrait of an inner life free to swell, untethered to the realities of children, a spouse and a mortgage that made me think.” —The Huffington Post
“Corrosively funny. . . . At a time at which there seems to be plenty for creative women to be angry about, Nora’s rant feels refreshing.”— Vogue
“Engrossing. . . . Think of [Nora] as the woman who leans out: the A student who puts others’ needs first. . . . 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.” —People (A People’s Pick)
“A supremely well-crafted page-turner with a shocker of an ending.” —The Boston Globe
“[Messud has] a literary critic’s knack for marshaling and reverberating themes and, most crucially, a broad and deep empathy. . . . The Woman Upstairs is first-rate: It asks unsettling, unanswerable questions.” —The Denver Post
“Brilliant. . . . Messud’s cosmopolitan sensibilities infuse her fiction with a refreshing cultural fluidity. . . . The Woman Upstairs brims with energy and ideas.” —NPR
“[Messud] knows how to make fiction out of the clash of civilizations. Her heroines . . . inhabit the inky space between continents, physical and generational. . . . The Woman Upstairs is not a pretty read, but that is precisely what makes it so hard to put down.” —The Economist
“[Here] are 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. . . . Smoldering.” —Bloomberg Businessweek
“Spellbinding, psychologically acute. . . . How much of Nora’s fantasy is true . . . is the real subject of Messud’s novel. . . . Exquisitely rendered.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Hypnotic. . . . In Nora, Messud has conjured a self-contradictory yet acutely familiar character; we’ve all met someone like her, if we aren’t like her ourselves. . . . Nora does not become monstrous or pathological or even absurd. This, in a way, is her tragedy.” —Salon
“Messud is a tremendously smart, accomplished writer. . . . What the novel does, in spades, is give a voiceless woman a chance to howl.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Bracing. . . . In this fierce, feminist novel, the reader serves as Nora’s confessor, and it’s a pleasurable job to listen to someone so eloquent, whose insights about how women are valued in society and art are sharp and righteous.” —Dallas News
“A trenchant exploration into the mercenary nature of artistic creation. . . . Destined to become a cultural benchmark.” —The Wall Street Journal
SELECTION 2013 ALA Notable Adult Books
About the Book
The introduction, discussion questions and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of best-selling author Claire Messud’s brilliant new novel, The Woman Upstairs.
About the Guide
The novel opens with a furious self-introduction by the narrator, Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that” (p. 3). Just past forty now, she has led the life of a good girl and good daughter, a good teacher who’s good with the kids but not always so good with herself. She has become “the woman upstairs”: quiet, polite, smiling, causing no trouble. But now she is furious. She wants to set the world on fire. The journey that brought her to this point unfolds as the novel moves forward.
The trouble begins with what at first appears to be a godsend: the arrival in Cambridge of the Shahid family from Paris. Seven-year-old Reza, an enchanting boy, joins her class, and soon Nora meets his charming, sophisticated parents: Skandar, a visiting scholar at Harvard, and Sirena, an installation artist on the cusp of international fame. Nora falls in love with all of them, both separately and together, and in the process oversteps the boundaries she has so carefully created for herself. When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies, Nora is drawn deep into the family’s complex and alluring world.
Nora’s growing friendship with Sirena also reawakens her own artistic ambitions, which were largely abandoned when she became a teacher. Sirena is working on a new sculptural and video-based installation called Wonderland, based in part on the dream-world into which Lewis Carroll’s Alice descends, to premier at a major show in Paris. Fueled by Sirena’s vision and creativity, Nora dives into her own project: small-scale dioramas of the rooms of four different female artists, each radical in her own way. Working with Sirena, working on her art, Nora feels fully alive, energized and inspired. “I was awake in my life in a way completely new to me,” she says, “and I knew that anything . . . was possible” (p. 142). But this moment of exaltation is short-lived; Nora’s relationship with the Shahids becomes more dependent, more complicated—and more and more fascinating for the reader, right up to the surprising, shattering conclusion.
Emotionally and intellectually complex, The Woman Upstairs offers a fresh take on the themes of appearance and reality; deception and betrayal; identity, self-expression and exploration. And the novel paints a vivid and unflinching portrait of a woman on the verge, one who is finally ready, as she says, to set the world on fire as she grasps at a last chance for happiness.
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; 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 of her books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Messud has been awarded Guggenheim Fellowship 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.
1. Note Claire Messud’s epigraphs for the novel—quotes from some very persuasive, and very powerful, male writers. How do these words set up expectations for the reader? How do these choices look to you upon finishing The Woman Upstairs? And what about the other male writers (such as Dostoyevsky and Chekhov) whose work is alluded to in Messud’s text? Do they reveal anything about the author’s own understanding of Nora’s reliability, sense of self and potential literary legacy?
2. Nora introduces herself by saying: “My name is Nora Marie Eldridge and I’m forty-two years old. . . . Until last summer, I taught third grade at Appleton Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and maybe I’ll go back and do it again, I just don’t know. Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire. I just might” (p. 5). Which choice seems more likely for Nora? How might she set the world on fire? Is the book itself an act of revenge?
3. At the beginning of the novel, Nora says: “I’ve finally come to understand that life itself is the Fun House. All you want is that door marked EXIT, the escape to a place where Real Life will be; and you can never find it” [p. 4]. Why does Nora feel that life is a Fun House? What does the Fun House represent for her? Why does she feel it’s impossible to escape? Why is Nora so drawn to each of the Shahids? What do they seem to offer her, and how do her memories inform her attraction to them?
4. What does Nora mean when she describes herself as “the woman upstairs”? What are the chief attributes of this archetype?
5. Nora asks, “How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in place where being female means playing dumb and looking good?” (p. 4). In what ways can The Woman Upstairs be read as a feminist novel? Which aspects of women’s experience does the novel illuminate?
6. Nora might be described as a self-conscious narrator. At the beginning of Chapter 7, she writes: “There was another strand in this tapestry. What does it signify that I am loath to tell you, slow to tell you?” (p. 148). What effect is created by Nora’s direct addresses to the reader and her self-questioning? How does Nora want her readers to see her? Does this honesty make her more of a reliable narrator, or does it trigger the reader to be more skeptical of her storytelling—including her observations and her claims?
7. As he walks her home one night, Skandar tells Nora, “You don’t look like a ravenous wolf,” to which Nora replies, “Well, I am. . . . I’m starving” (p. 161). What is Nora so hungry for? Where does her hunger—her longing and desire—come from?
8. Earlier in the novel, she writes that hunger is “the source of almost every sorrow” (p. 46). Is hunger at the root of her own pain? Nora understands that “the great dilemma” of her mother’s life “had been to glimpse freedom too late, at too high a price” (p. 40). Does Nora reenact her mother’s failed ambitions or go beyond them? Why did Nora give up the artist’s life and become first a management consultant and then an elementary school teacher?
9. Why does Nora choose Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick as subjects for her dioramas? In what ways does she identify with, yet try to distinguish herself from, these particular writers and artists?
10. The ending of The Woman Upstairs delivers a tremendous shock to Nora and to the reader. Were there hints and warnings that a betrayal was coming? Why wasn’t Nora more wary of her involvement with the Shahids? What may have motivated Sirena to treat Nora as she does?
11. Early in the novel, Nora writes: “I’m not crazy. Angry, yes; crazy, no” (p. 5). But later she suggests that if someone else told her story to her, she’d conclude they were either crazy or a child. How is the reader to understand her mental and emotional state?
12. After visiting Sirena’s Wonderland exhibit in Paris, Nora writes: “How could I begin to explain what it meant . . . the great rippling outrage of what it meant—about each of us, about myself perhaps most of all, about the lies I’d persistently told myself these many years” (p. 252). What does the betrayal Nora suffers mean for each of them? What lies has she told herself?
13. It becomes clear by the end of the novel that Sirena was using Nora. Is Nora purely a victim of Sirena’s ruthlessness? To what extent does Nora make herself vulnerable to such humiliation? Was she also using Sirena for her own purposes?
14. Look again at the ferocious opening pages of the novel and at Nora’s self-description, written after the events the novel describes have already transpired. How has she been transformed by her experience with the Shahids? Has the experience, as painful as it was, been good for her in any way?
Thomas Bernhard, The Loser; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Villette; Peter Carey, Theft; Anton Chekhov, Selected Stories; Kate Chopin, The Awakening; Michael Cunningham, The Hours; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground; Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie; Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary; Philip Roth, Everyman; Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects; Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.