The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire MessudThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Published by A. A. Knopf on April 30, 2013
Pages: 272
Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.
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Nora Eldridge, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is on the verge of disappearing. Having abandoned her desire to be an artist, she has become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and tidy neighbour always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her classroom walks a new pupil, Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents--dashing Skandar, a half-Muslim Professor of Ethical History born in Beirut, and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist--have come to America for Skandar to teach at Harvard.
But one afternoon, Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who punch, push and call him a "terrorist," and Nora is quickly drawn deep into the complex world of the Shahid family. Soon she finds herself falling in love with them, separately and together. Nora's happiness explodes her boundaries--until Sirena's own ambition leads to a shattering betrayal.
Written with intimacy and piercing emotion, this urgently dispatched story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill--and the devastating cost--of giving in to one's passions. The Woman Upstairs is a masterly story of America today, of being a woman and of the exhilarations of love.


The Woman Upstairs started out with a bang. Nora was one angry woman, wow! She puts on a front. She tries to be a good person (although usually by ignoring how she really feels). This is Nora’s story about being over it. I loved her rage and couldn’t wait to find out the back story.

Talk about a dysfunctional friendship. My reaction upon finishing the novel was to place blame on one side or the other. After thinking some more, I realized it wasn’t so simple. I had a lot of questions. (I’ll be vague so as not to spoil anything.) Was there intentional, malicious using of people? Was there a neglect in setting up healthy boundaries from the start? Maybe a little of both? The novel doesn’t give clear answers, and that is a strength. But I expected a lot after the strong, powerful opening. Honestly, everything felt kind of bland after that.

  • I so wish this book had been as good as the beginning! I thought the end was pretty fierce, too, but the middle kind of brought it all down for me.

  • I love your new blog look! And I’ve been hearing about all the rage in this book…sorry to hear the later parts fell flat.

  • Sorry to hear the end of the book didn’t live up to the beginning! I love a book filled with ambiguity, though.

  • Amanda

    This is one that fell flat for me too. You would think all that rage would have built up to more.

  • The opener of this book is fantastic, but I agree, the rest never quite lives up to that promise.