Woman Upstairs (Messud)

The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud, 2013
Knopf Doubleday
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307596901



Summary
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 publisher.)



Author Bio
 Birth—1966
Where—Greenwich, CT, USA
Education—BA, Yale University; M.A. Cambridge University
Awards—Addison Metcalf Award and Strauss Living Award,
   both from the American Academy of Arts & Letters
Currently—lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts


Claire Messud is an American novelist and literature and creative writing professor. She is best known as the author of the 2006 novel The Emperor's Children. She lives with her husband and family in Cambridge, Massachuesetts.

Born in Greenwich, Connecticut, Messud grew up in the United States, Australia, and Canada, returning to the United States as a teenager. Messud's mother is Canadian, and her father is French from French Algeria (Algeria was a French colony until 1962). She was educated at Milton Academy, Yale University, and Cambridge University, where she met her spouse, the British literary critic James Wood. Messud also briefly attended the MFA program at Syracuse University.

Writing
Messud's debut novel, When The World Was Steady (1995), was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 1999, she published her second book, The Last Life, about three generations of a French-Algerian family. Her 2001 work, The Hunters, consists of two novellas. Her 2006 novel, The Emperor’s Children, was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Messud wrote the novel while a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2004–2005. Her most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs (2013) revolves around a soon-to-be-40 woman who comes under the spell of the charming Paris-based Shahid family.

Teaching
Messud has taught creative writing at Kenyon College, University of Maryland, Amherst College, in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers in North Carolina, and in the Graduate Writing program at The Johns Hopkins University. Messud also taught at the Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Each spring semester, beginning 2009, Messud teaches a literary traditions course as a part of CUNY Hunter College's MFA Program in Creative Writing.

She is on the editorial board of the literary magazine The Common, based at Amherst College. She has contributed articles to publications such as The New York Review of Books.[6]

Honors
The American Academy of Arts and Letters has recognized Messud's talent with both an Addison Metcalf Award and a Strauss Living Award. She was considered for the 2003 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, although none of the three passports she holds is British. As of 2010–2011, she is a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin / Institute of Advanced Study. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
“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.
Megan O’Grady - Vogue


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.... When Sirena asks Nora to share an artists’ studio, Nora falls in love with each exotic Shahid in turn... But after freeing Nora from herself, the Shahids betray her.... 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.
Publishers Weekly


It shows Messud at the height of her considerable powers, articulating the quandary of being alive and sentient, covetous and confused in the twenty-first century.... 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.
Daphne Merkin - Bookforum


(Starred review.) With exhilarating velocity, fury, and wit, the superlative Messud immolates an iconic figure—the good, quiet, self-sacrificing woman.... Nora, our archly funny, venomous, and raging narrator, recounts her thirty-seventh year, when she was living alone and teaching third grade after the death of her mother.... 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." —Donna Seaman
Booklist


(Starred review.) A self-described "good girl" lifts her mask in Messud's scarifying new novel. "How angry am I?" Nora Eldridge rhetorically asks in her opening sentence. "You don't want to know." But she tells us anyway.... So when the exotic Shahid family enters her life in the fall of 2004, Nora sees them as saviors. Reza is in her class ... his Italian mother, Sirena, [is] the kind of bold, assertive artist Nora longs to be.... [T]he story unfolds to reveal Sirena as something of a user...though it's unwise to credit Nora's jaundiced perceptions. Her untrustworthy, embittered narration...is an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms....[but] inspires little confidence that Nora can actually change her ways. Brilliant and terrifying.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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