The Woman Upstairs
September 16, 2019 10:18 AM - by Claire Messud - Subscribe

Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this New York Times bestselling novel is the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and abandoned by a desire for a world beyond her own. Nora Eldridge is a reliable, but unremarkable, friend and neighbor, always on the fringe of other people’s achievements. But the arrival of the Shahid family—dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar, glamorous Sirena, an Italian artist, and their son, Reza—draws her into a complex and exciting new...

Holy shit.
posted by bunderful (6 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I posted this on my lunch break from my phone, right after I finished reading it. Now I can go into a little more depth.

What made me want to read the book was the quote included on the blue, in a post about fictional spinsters. Reading this book was, in many ways, like looking into a mirror. (Not the sleeping with married men and setting up google alerts to keep track of people, I hasten to add).

There's some talk on Goodreads about whether the MC is likable - it hadn't occurred to me to think about this and I don't care. But now I wonder if I'm likable. Because her anger seems so perfectly normal to me, even without the ending.

Some quotes:
“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.... I felt forsaken by hope. I felt I’d been seen, and seen clearly, and discarded, dropped back into the undiscriminated pile like a shell upon the shore.”

"And yet, while I left their home feeling welcome, even loved, it was a different, smaller sort of love than I'd wanted - not so much a glacier or a fireworks display as a light shawl against the evening breeze. Recognizably love, but useless in a gale."
posted by bunderful at 9:31 PM on September 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

(I see the likability issue was also raised on the blue).
posted by bunderful at 9:35 PM on September 16, 2019

Might be me, too. Will probably get audiobook.
posted by Glinn at 4:44 PM on September 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well, I listened to this audiobook on my commute over a couple weeks. It was a bit devastating. Can something be a bit devastating? I found the spinster talk from a 37 to 42-year old rather premature but then, maybe not.

I could imagine having similar feelings toward more worldly, successful people who seem to have an interest in my small life. Like my brother and his wife, in fact. And also feel similarly insulted and belittled by their seeming carelessness, and then upon reflection understanding, as much as that is possible?

The likability thing. Ugh. I could write a book. How to map one's journey and figure out how one ended up with a smaller life than one might have hoped? I turned 50 this year and I think about it a lot. Some of the Goodreads comments were just as devastating as the book. Blaming Nora for her choices and her life. Claiming she could have made so many other choices. Could she? Could I? And how? Is it too late for Nora? The book ended too soon, because I would like to know what she chose to do, after.

I still don't know what to think about the ending. I don't feel like this is something Sirena would have done, nor does it really make sense she would have been filming at that time - unless specifically to try to ensnare Nora in something. It is beyond terrible. These are my initial thoughts.
posted by Glinn at 2:56 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think the spinster thing is somewhat geographically dependent. I previously lived in a large city where women waited until later in life to get married and have kids, but now I live in a flyover state where most of my peers have teens and pre-teens - I'm in my early 40s but I feel very much like a spinster. You'd think in Boston it would be a little different...

The ending was such a shock to me. She starts off the book talking about how angry she is and I didn't feel that I needed any additional explanation for her anger. It *does* suck to be talked out of your dreams and to find yourself at 40 thinking "wait, is this it?" If you really want to have a partner and kids, it sucks to not have them and not be able to figure out what you could to do make that happen for yourself. I was totally on board with the anger and didn't realize the novel was using the anger to set up the story.

Several years ago I decided that relationships are what's important in life, so I prioritize my friends. I help them whenever I can. I chat, I talk, I help with moving, I cook dinner, etc. And it's slowly become clear that I'm not really a priority to anyone else, except my parents. Friends are grateful for my help and they are not bad friends, but I will never be as important to them as partners and/or children. I will drop my Saturday to go and help them with a flood in the basement, but I can't count on the favor being returned. That crystalized for me while reading this book.

And then there's the invisibility. And when men in my circle actually notice me and seem to see me as an actual person it's so unbalancing and confusing. Why are you talking to me like a whole person with feelings and bills to pay and hobbies - do you want to cheat on your wife in which case we're done talking, or is this just how friendship looks for middle-aged people in 2019?

I did believe that Sirena would do it - I thought her affection for Nora was genuine but generic; her art was primary and she was ruthless as an artist. I believe, want to believe, that Nora's rage propels her into a new life that's far more meaningful and interesting to her, and where she's no one's second fiddle.

And I want to know what that life looks like and how to build it.
posted by bunderful at 8:12 AM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

The ending was a shock to me also! I agree she had plenty to be angry about, and perhaps I had not listened carefully to the beginning in order to expect that final, enormous betrayal.

I guess I just did not want to think Sirena would do that. That despite her larger life and career she respected Nora and appreciated the help she provided her family. That she would use her this way instead is just so monstrous.

And frankly I don't buy that it's art. And must be illegal? Plus when the event happened the installation was nowhere near done or put together. SO many reasons it was terrible for Sirena to do this thing. And not tell her, and almost get away with it? Ugh ugh ugh.

I agree that relationships are the most important, and have had similarly poor luck with friends from college. In those cases, being far away geographically is an additional hurdle in addition to their families/kids/careers. I have often thought about starting a local group for people like me. There must be many of us, and no reason to feel the loneliness or lack of social enrichment if we could all just get together periodically. I looked a bit into the Red Hat Society but got a vibe (that could be wrong) it was for women with more disposable income than me.

Definitely felt cheated by the end of this book. Almost feels like the author could not imagine what Nora's cleansing rage might propel her into. And that's really too bad. I want to believe it's something great, or at minimum, an attempt. That's all we can do. Try! (I am painting a lot this year and seeing real improvement, finally. I got talked out of art school and eventually amassed what is still high 5 figure student debt for an entirely worthless master's in English.) Dangit.
posted by Glinn at 10:00 AM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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