“The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud

“The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud   (2013) – 253 pages

 “Who is he who always walks beside you?  No-fucking-body, thank you very much.  I walk alone.” 


Forty-two year old school teacher Nora Eldridge tells the story in “The Woman Upstairs”.  She teaches second grade at Appleton Elementary in Boston.  She lives in an apartment and has never been married.

 “We’re always upstairs…We’re the quiet woman at the end of the third floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound.  In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers we are furious.  We’re completely invisible.”

 A new school year starts, and one of the new students is a boy named Reza.  Nora meets Reza’s mother Sirena and his father Skandar.  Sirena is an artist, and soon Sirena and Nora together rent an artist studio in an old warehouse.  Nora sees this as a chance to pursue her art, something she hasn’t done since before college.  Meanwhile Sirena is a real artist who is quite famous in Paris and is preparing for her next Paris show.

I discovered Claire Messud early in her career with her first novel “When the World was Steady”.  That novel had a depth of insight into her characters’ inner lives that most writers do not approach.  Her next two books “The Last Life” and “The Hunters” also impressed me with their perceptiveness.  Her next novel “The Emperor’s Children” was her breakout novel.  That novel about New Yorkers before and after 9/11 made the best seller lists and was long listed for the Booker.

However to me it seemed that in “The Emperor’s Children” Messud went wide with a large number of characters so that it did not have the depth of her earlier novels.  In “The Woman Upstairs” Messud concentrates on only a few individuals and I actually prefer “The Woman Upstairs” over “The Emperor’s Children” for that reason.

Messud has found the drama in the life of this middle-aged schoolteacher Nora.  There is high drama in every human life, but sometimes it takes a writer of the intelligence and acuity of Claire Messud to discover and develop it.  It almost seems like Messud intentionally sets up these challenges to her writing ability by choosing characters whose lives are seemingly mundane. This time the challenge really paid off.

“The Woman Upstairs” will be considered a feminist novel, and that it surely is.  That doesn’t mean that men must bypass an exceptionally intelligent and interesting novel.

5 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds excellent. Too bad the only one I have on my piles is The Emperor’s Children.
    Which one is the best starting point. Her first`?


    • Hi Caroline,
      My own preference would be any of the four besides “The Emperor’s Children’, but apparently the rest of the world likes “The Emperor’s Children. the best. I think this latest ‘The Woman Upstairs’ could easily be very popular also.


  2. Been absent for a while Tony … The emperor’s children is the only one of hers I’ve read and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t make me think I must rush to read other works. It didn’t have the depth or exciting enough writing to excite me. However, I heard her interviewed about this one when she was here for the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I was intrigued. I’d love to read it if I could find the time so it was stay on my TBR radar.


  3. Hi WhisperingGums,
    Did you know that Claire Messud is married to famous book person/critic James Wood? She probably couldn’t get a bad review now even if she wanted one. As is often the case with me, I was most enthusiastic about her work back when she was an unknown and I could be one of a small contingent of fans. I did like “The Woman Upstairs” better than “The Emperor’s Children”.
    Thanks for stopping by, WG !


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