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Original Essays | September 4, 2014

Edward E. Baptist: IMG The Two Bodies of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

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The Woman Upstairs


The Woman Upstairs Cover



Reading Group Guide

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.

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J M, October 25, 2013 (view all comments by J M)
I really wanted to like this novel based on reviews I've read, and found it beautifully written...but ultimately it failed for me.

The protagonist is struggling with an incredibly self-indulgent mid-life crisis, and spends a truly phenomenal portion of the book simply dissecting her own emotions. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, she muses on her own thoughts and feelings. And most of the time her observations -- again, very well written -- are dull and mind-numbingly obvious. Her actions are....well, frankly, she does almost nothing and very little happens to her at all. I had to force myself to get through this to the end, in the hopes that there would be character development. But she does little, learns less, and develops almost not at all until the last few pages (and this painfully delayed denouement fell very flat, for me).

When Messud describes things -- people, places, voices -- the book is terrific, almost lyrical. And some people enjoy purely introspective books, but I don't care for a narrator who spends hundreds of pages wallowing in self-inflicted, largely imagined angst. There are well written books that actually *go* somewhere.
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JLB9698, May 24, 2013 (view all comments by JLB9698)
What a riveting read! I haven't felt so strongly about a book in years. Messud is excellent, not only in her literary skills, but in her ability to pin down the idiosyncrasies in all of us and force us examine them under bright light. This psychological novel has had a profound effect on me.... I am now left to wonder about the reality of day to day living and underlying motives of both my friends and myself.
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Product Details

Messud, Claire
Literature-A to Z
Publication Date:
9.58 x 6.53 x 1.12 in 1.14 lb

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The Woman Upstairs Used Hardcover
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Product details 272 pages Knopf - English 9780307596901 Reviews:
"Review" by , “Corrosively funny....Nora — a not-quite 40 schoolteacher as disappointed in her Katy Perry-obsessed students as she is in her own failed potential — finds her dormant creative passions awakened by a student’s worldly mother, an artist who shows in Paris. An ardent friendship unfolds, ending in a betrayal that unleashes in Nora an eloquent, primal rage. Fifty years ago, Simone de Beauvoir faulted creative women for their unwillingness to ‘dare to irritate, explore, explode,’ Two generations later, anger this combustible still feels refreshing.”
"Review" by , "The Woman Upstairs is an extraordinary novel, a psychological suspense story of the highest sort that will leave you thinking about its implications for days afterward. Messud’s skills are all on display here, [in] a work of fiction that is not just beautifully observed but also palpably inhabited by its gifted writer in a manner she has not quite dared attempt before.”
"Review" by , "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.’”
"Review" by , "Messud is such a gifted painter of our choices and their consequences. She’s never gone this deep before in showing us how our reality and our pipe dreams intersect. Her portrait of Nora Eldridge, a decent woman who has perhaps crossed the wrong bridges in her life, would move stone. What’s going to become of Nora? What will the Shahids do to her? The Woman Upstairs is Claire Messud’s greatest novel.”
"Review" by , "Nora’s untrustworthy narration, 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....Brilliant and terrifying.”
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