Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud
A. A. Knopf

First lines: "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that."

The next paragraph is actually pretty freaking brilliant and sets the tone for the book really well.

The Woman Upstairs is Nora Eldridge, third grade teacher and part-time artist. Never married. As Nora explains it, the woman upstairs is not Ralph Ellison's invisible man in the basement or Bronte's madwoman in the attic: she is "the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who always smiles brightly in the stairwell with a cheerful greeting, and who, from behind closed doors, never makes a sound" (6). She lives Thoreau's life of "quiet desperation". In her 37th year, Nora becomes entangled with the family of a foreign student, and it changes her. Or maybe not exactly changes her, but wakes her up and makes her no longer able to continue in the life she was living.

I enjoyed the heck out of this book. I have seen people complain about Nora's unlikeableness, and frankly that is not a big concern of mine. I want characters who feel real. I think most of us have something unlikeable about us, and if a book was written, it might not be about my good side. We could write a book about Nora's years as a teacher, of caring for her ailing mother, of being a dutiful daughter to her father. But where is the fun in that? 

I would love to have a discussion with someone about this book. Why is Nora so angry? What do you make of the fact that Nora seems to have inherited her anger from her mother despite the fact that their lives turned out so differently? Or were they so different after all?

***I hadn't intended to write an actual review, but I had more to say than I realized! Back soon, with mini-reviews of the other books I have been reading...


  1. I loved this book, too, but am afraid I read it too long ago to engage in any meaningful discussion. Your review reminds me that I want to read more of Messud's work.

  2. I'm like JoAnn - where were you two years ago when I was the same as you - wanting to discuss! I remember loving her anger, how it would just burst out. I listened to the audio, and it was very well done. I"ll throw you an email, if you want to 'chat' about the book, for what I remember.
    I also put Messud on my reading list of author's I plan to read the second book of this year.

  3. I keep hearing about this one, but I still haven't read it!! I don't think I need a character to be likable, but I do need to have some insight into why they react in certain ways.

  4. I know Andi loved this one, so I am sure she would enjoy discussing it with you. I know I am excited to read it!

  5. "I want characters who feel real." Me too, it's such an important draw to a book. Some of my favourite characters are ones I never liked.