The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs

Five words from the blurb: alone, unseen, passion, art, betrayal

The Woman Upstairs grabs the reader’s attention from the very beginning. The narrator, Nora, is very angry and over the course of the book the reader discovers what has upset her.  Nora is a teacher and she becomes friends with the parents of one of her pupils. They share a passion for art and Nora enjoys looking after their son. Her relationship with this family develops, but it is obvious that sooner or later something will go wrong…

I loved the anger and passion in the text – it is rare to read a book that demands attention in this way. Some readers will hate this direct approach, but I loved it and actually missed the raw emotion when it disappeared towards the centre of the book.

Much of The Woman Upstairs reminded me of Notes on a Scandal. Both books look at the difficulties of being a single woman without children; showing their invisibility in society.

When you’re the Woman Upstairs, nobody thinks of you first. Nobody calls you before anyone else, or sends you the first postcard. Once your mother dies, nobody loves you best of all. It’s a small thing, you might think; and maybe it depends on temperament; maybe for some people it’s a small thing. But for me, in that cul-de-sac outside Aunt Baby’s, with my father and aunt done dissecting death and shuffling off to bed behind the crimson farmhouse door, preparing for morning mass as blameless as lambs and as lifeless as the slaughtered – I felt forsaken by hope.

My only problem with the book was that the plot felt very familiar. The writing style was refreshingly different and ending was good, but there were too many points during the course of the novel when I felt I’d read something similar before.

Overall this was an engaging read and I loved the increasing sense of foreboding. Recommended to anyone looking for a loud, confrontational read.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

...a deeply contemporary novel that reflects back the darkness and the light of ourselves as we try to shape our own worlds and how we define the meaning of success.  Free Range Reading

…mediocre at best. Cerebral Girl in a Red Neck World

Messud does such a good job of creating a sense of dread. Reading the End

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  1. Sandy says:

    You know, they were going a little crazy over this book in EW, but then Reader’s Respite gave it a terrible review, feeling the narrator was bitter and whiny. I think the author too made some snarky comments somewhere that got people in an uproar. But I love your perspective, and will take it to heart. I’ve not thrown in my hat on this one yet.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Yes, the narrator is bitter and whiny, but I loved her for it! I’ve seen the authors comments about unlikable characters in Publisher’s Weekly (is that what your talking about?) and I admire her for defending the right to have an annoying narrator. I think you’d like this book and I hope you decide to try it one day.

  2. cbjames says:

    Ha! We like the same book! I even agree with the faults you found in The Woman Upstairs. However, I think the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in this case. While I did find things to quibble about, I thought this one packed some very serious punch in the end.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, Yay! Our taste in books does seem to becoming more aligned over the years. Glad you agree with my review and I second the endorsement for that powerful ending!

  3. Priscilla says:

    So far, this is the most compelling review of this book that I’ve seen. So many people on Twitter seemed to love it, and the NYT gave it a good review, but I’ve felt very “meh” about the prospect of reading it. I loved Notes on a Scandal, loved the voice in that book, so maybe it would be worth picking this one up just to see.

    1. Jackie says:

      Priscilla, It may be worth just reading a sample from the Internet The voice is obvious from the start and I think you’ll be able to tell whether or not it for you from the first page. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. I loved Notes on a Scandal too, and think from what I’ve read that I will enjoy this book too – I’ve ordered a copy. I hope the lull in the middle sets up the ending!

    1. Jackie says:

      Annabel, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the ending. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  5. Alex says:

    I’ve seen very mixed reviews of this book and am still undecided as to whether or not to read it. I think in many ways its subject is a bit close to home. I’m worried that I might identify too much – not always a good thing if you’re trying to be objective about a book’s merits.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, If you identify with the central character then I guess you’ll find some sections of this book upsetting to read, but is that a bad thing? I like books that show me I’m not alone in my feelings, no matter how depressing that might be. It all depends on what you want from a book. If you want something light and happy this isn’t for you!

  6. I really want to read this one — moreso as a result of your review. :)

    1. Jackie says:

      I hope you enjoy it!

  7. litlove says:

    I enjoyed this one – oddly enough I didn’t find the narrator very angry. She was at the beginning and at the end, but for a lot of the book she was suspiciously cheerful! I was all for the premise of an angry woman, but I did wish by the end that her reasons for being angry had a greater cultural resonance. She seemed like someone whose standards for social interaction were set way too high, and after all, she wasn’t exactly blameless in her conduct towards the Shahids. I ended up feeling she was angry because she had some sort of personality disorder rather than because she’d been badly treated by others. But the writing was very good.

    1. Jackie says:

      litlove, I agree that she wasn’t angry in some of the middle sections, but there was an underlying tension through most of the book and I saw that as anger ready to spill over. I loved the angry bits and wish there had been a few more.

      I didn’t think her standards for social interaction were set too high (not sure what that says about me!) but agree she wasn’t blameless – I do love a flawed character! This would make a great book club choice as I love the way everyone sees it differently.

  8. It’s a bit sad how excited I got to read a book with an angry female narrator. I wish it weren’t such a rare phenomenon as to BE a phenomenon when it appears. But all props to Claire Messud for doing this and for defending her character so passionately.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I think I might get excited about angry narrators now. I can’t remember reading one before and that is sad. I wish it wasn’t so rare too.

  9. JoV says:

    Angry and direct approach you say? This book sounds right up my alley!! I have Emperor’s Children on my shelf for a long while, I have always wanting to read Messud books.

    I have just reviewed And the Mountains Echoed. It was a good read.

    Happy holidays. I love Icelandic novels.

    P/s: I can’t believe you actually sew the Jedi costumes for 15!! Awesome.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I think I might own a copy of ‘Emperor’s Children’ too! I’m glad I finally got around to trying her and hope I enjoy the rest of her books just as much. I hope you like this one :-)

  10. Awesome review, Jackie. I’ve not read anything by Messud though I had flagged this book for further research as it sounded intriguing, but your review has definitely bumped it up my list of priorities! You know I love Notes on a Scandal, and while I wouldn’t want to read that novel again (in another person’s words), the association is enough that I’m really eager to try this one. Hopefully I’ll find an ebook version of it as we’re not finding many compelling paperbacks here in Indonesia!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, This book has a different plot to ‘Notes on a Scandal’ but the centrasl characters both have similar personalities. I think you’ll enjoy this one. Fingers crossed you can find the ebook version!

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