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The Woman Upstairs

Cover of The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs

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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.

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.

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  • From the book

    Chapter 1

    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...
About the Author-
  • CLAIRE MESSUD's last novel, The Emperor's Children, was a New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Her first novel, When the World Was Steady, and her book of novellas, The Hunters, were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her second novel, The Last Life, won Britain's Encore Award. Her short fiction has been included in the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Raised in Sydney, Australia and Toronto, where she attended the Toronto French School and UTS, Messud was a judge for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her family.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Cassandra Campbell superbly portrays Nora Eldridge's life of quiet desperation. Teacher, spinster, and dutiful daughter of an ailing father, Nora has the soul of an artist, but her existence has little personal meaning. Her late mother's voice and frustrations also echo in her heart. When Nora meets the Shahid family, she becomes enchanted with them: her charming student, Reza, who is confronted by bullies in the schoolyard; his artist mother, Sirena, who becomes Nora's studio partner and then outgrows their relationship; and his father, Skandar, a Harvard professor who embarks on long walks, and more, with Nora. Campbell portrays the Shahids with mesmerizing personalities and varied accents. Campbell's performance shares the author's passion for these characters and their intimate story. D.P.D. (c) AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 27, 2013
    It’s not that elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge’s life has gone particularly wrong, it’s that it hasn’t gone particularly right. She sold out her artistic dreams for success and stability, and become angry and full of self-loathing somewhere along the way. But when a young student, Reza Shahid, and his family enter her life, Nora finds herself changing as she is drawn into the Shahids’ world. Cassadra Campbell’s narration is pitch-perfect. She shifts back and forth between the different characters, lending all of them unique voices that capture their complexity. Her first-person narration is a delightful blend of restraint and emotion that will keeps listeners slightly anxious at all the right moments. By striking this balance, she captures the hard edge of Nora—and of the text—in a way that will resonate with listeners. A Knopf hardcover.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 18, 2013
    The gifted Messud, writing her way through the ages, has now arrived at a woman in her 40s–and it’s not pretty. Nora Eldridge, a schoolteacher who dreams of being an artist, is angry, cynical, and quietly desperate. Then she meets the Shahid family: Sirena, Skandar, and Reza, a student in Nora’s third-grade class at Appleton Elementary in Cambridge, Mass. When Sirena asks Nora to share an artists’ studio, Nora falls in love with each exotic Shahid in turn: Sirena, for her artistic vision; Skandar, for his intellectual fervor; and Reza, because he’s a perfectly beautiful child, bullied at school but magnanimous. In her previous books, Messud (The Emperor’s Children) has set individuals against the weight of kin; here is an individual who believes she’s found a vigorous self in the orbit of a dangerously charismatic family. But after freeing Nora from herself, the Shahids betray her, Sirena especially, cruelly exploiting a private moment of Nora’s newfound joy with an intimate work of art Sirena shows in Paris without Nora’s knowledge. As with other Messud characters, these too are hard to love; few would want to know the unpalatable Nora, so full of self-loathing, nor the self-important Shahids. Agent: Georges and Anne Borchardt, the Borchardt Agency.

  • Jenny Shank, Dallas News

    "Fantastic--one of those seemingly small stories that so burst with rage and desire that they barely squeeze between hard covers. The prose is impeccable. . . . Messud writes about happiness, and about infatuation--about love--more convincingly than any author I've encountered in years. She fills [her] protagonist with an inner life so rich and furious that you will never again nod hello in the hall to 'the woman upstairs' without thinking twice. . . Is Nora's entrancement erotic, or bigger and stranger than sex? I'm not telling. Read the book." --Lionel Shriver, National Public Radio, "All Things Considered"

    "Bracing . . . not so much the story of the road not taken as that of the longed-for road that never appeared. . . . Nora's anger electrifies the narrative, and Messud masterfully controls the tension and pace. In this fierce, feminist novel, the reader serves as Nora's confessor, and it's a pleasure to listen to someone so eloquent, whose insights about how women are valued in society and art are sharp."

  • Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
    "An elegant winner of a novel . . . quietly, tensely unfolding . . . Remarkably, Messud lets us experience Nora's betrayal as if it were our own, and what finally happens really is a punch in the stomach. Highly recommended."
  • Katherine Rowland, Guernica
    "Utterly compelling . . . Crisply illuminated."
  • John Broening, The Denver Post "Messud has many gifts as a novelist: She writes well, dramatizes, has a sharp ear, a literary critic's knack for marshaling and reverberating themes and, most crucially, a broad and deep empathy that enables her to portray a wide range of characters from the inside. . . . The Woman Upstairs is first-rate: It asks unsettling, unanswerable questions: How much do those who are not our family or our partners really owe us? How close can we really be to them before we start to become needy or creepy? The characters are fully alive."
  • Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor "Messud is a tremendously smart, accomplished writer, [and] Nora's fury explodes from the very first sentence of The Woman Upstairs. . . . The novel gives a voiceless woman a chance to howl."
  • Mary Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    "Engrossing . . . Think of her as the woman who leans out: the A student who puts others' needs first, plays by the rules, teaches instead of doing. 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." --Kim Hubbard, People (A People's Pick)

    "Messud's account of [Nora's] search for recognition and release is as tight and vivid as Nora's pent-up passion. I was pulled in."
  • Heidi Legg, The Huffington Post "Messud's crystallization of how it feels to crash into a midlife reckoning that resonated most and haunted me in the days after finishing her mesmerizing novel. . . . It boils and 'burns,' and Messud gives us a double whammy to ensure we feel the pangs of midlife. . . . Messud is most interested in the collision between our inner lives and our reality. . . . While it was Messud's achingly beautiful characters that drew me in, it was her portrait of an inner life free to swell, untethered to the realities of children, a spouse and a mortgage that made me think. Seeing Nora live so obsessively in her self-made dioramas in search of joy made me find refuge. For those who live in leafy Cambridge surrounded by alluring visiting intellectuals from afar, students and Somerville artists, it must be said that there is a great writer of our times in our midst who is a nice girl, who never walked out on a friend. Just don't get her angry."
  • Britt Peterson, The New Republic "Clear-eyed . . . a passionate and skillful description of female ambition and women artists at work . . . Like Messud herself, Nora knows some women need to stay on fire."
  • Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Spellbinding, psychologically acute . . . Like Emily Dickenson Nora's heightened state lets her see things others miss. [Yet] how much of Nora's fantasy is true--and to what degree the Shahids must share the blame when it's not--is the real subject of Messud's novel. Sh
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