Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Nora Eldridge is a reliable, but unremarkable, friend and neighbor, always on the fringe of other people’s achievements. But the arrival of the Shahid family — dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, an Italian artist, and their son, Reza — draws her into a complex and exciting new world. Nora’s happiness pushes her beyond her boundaries, until Sirena’s careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal. Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this New York Times bestselling novel is the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and abandoned by a desire for a world beyond her own.“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
“Startling: a psychological and intellectual thriller.” Los Angeles Times
“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
A New York Times Book Review
Notable Book • A Washington Post
Top Ten Book of the Year • A Chicago Tribune
Noteworthy Book • A Huffington Post
Best Book • A Boston Globe
Best Book of the Year • A Kirkus
Best Fiction Book • A Goodreads Best Book
Nora Eldridge is a reliable, but unremarkable, friend and neighbor, always on the fringe of other people’s achievements. But the arrival of the Shahid family — dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, an Italian artist, and their son, Reza — draws her into a complex and exciting new world. Nora’s happiness pushes her beyond her boundaries, until Sirena’s careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal. Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this New York Times bestselling novel is the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and abandoned by a desire for a world beyond her own.
About the Author
Claire Messud’s 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; and 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 books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Messud has been awarded Guggenheim 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.
Reading Group Guide
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?