The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

It is what you haven’t done that will torment you.

14448674For me, The Woman Upstairs had a great start and a good end, but lagged in the middle. Her writing was wonderful throughout, which is what got me through all the art-talk, and Nora’s internal dialogue about the Shahids and how they make her feel. That stuff was okay, but I would have liked it more if there had been less of it.

The Woman Upstairs starts off with a bang; I love how angry she is:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ sh*t and my brother’s sh*t, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty f**king years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone…

18209278The writing kept me going, but also the fact that I wanted to know what was going to happen between Nora and the Shahids that has put her in such a rage. And, once I finally got to the end, I suddenly wanted to know more. We will forever be in the same boat as Nora – not knowing why, how, or what the Shahids were thinking.

Overall, I’m glad I read it. The idea of the Woman Upstairs is fascinating to think about (especially being around the same age as Nora). It could happen to any of us. It’s so easy to just let life happen and let the years slip by.

The best thing about this book was the writing – here are a few good passages:

… hunger of one kind or another – desire by another name – is the source of almost every sorrow.

It’s the strangest thing about being human: to know so much, to communicate so much, and yet always to fall so drastically short of clarity, to be, in the end, so isolate and inadequate.

It was longing – “longing” is a better word than “desire”: it carries its quality of reaching but not attaining, of yearning, of a physical pull that is intense and yet melancholy, always already a little sorrowful, self-knowing, in some wise passionate and in some measure resigned. Desire suggests a burning, fervid, unreflective, something that wants, above all, satisfaction. And what you have to see about my Shahids is that always, at any moment… I always knew that my desire could not be satisfied, that it would never be satisfied; but that I was still close enough to hold on, intermittently, to the fantasy of its satisfaction, and that this, this was enough to keep it, for so very long, alive.

15701217The Woman Upstairs was longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Claire Messud is most well known for writing The Emperor’s Children.

This review at the Quill & Quire explains pretty much the way I felt about the book. So many good things about it, but a bit of a “slog” through the middle. I also wanted to tell Nora the same thing as this reviewer: “…just get on with it. Find your joy, Nora. Don’t rely on someone else to find it for you.”

33 thoughts on “The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

  1. kimbofo says:

    I read this for Shadow Giller duties a few years back and remember feeling the same way … It was a good read but it really didn’t grip me and the narrator irritated me — I know she was an angry woman but, honestly, she needed to get over herself 😉

  2. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I didn’t enjoy The Emperor’s Children all that much, so I’ve been hesitant to pick this one up, even though most reviews I’ve read of it have been positive. Glad you liked it well enough.

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t really like The Emperor’s Children either, and have wondered why she is so well known for it. Anyway, I obviously gave her another try. I liked this one better.

  3. River City Reading says:

    Totally agree with you. I loved the beginning and end, but struggled so hard through the middle. I absolutely loved the writing, though, and still recommend it, if nothing else to read those first few brilliant pages.

  4. whatmeread says:

    This is one I can never figure out if I want to read. It had fair to good, but not great, reviews in the press, but the premise just makes me uncomfortable.

    • Naomi says:

      I was the same as you – I’ve been going back and forth on it since it came out. A comment someone made about it recently (I can’t remember who or what it was) finally decided me to just read it for myself.
      I thought the premise sounded interesting, so if it makes you uncomfortable, you might want to continue to avoid it.

  5. JacquiWine says:

    I nearly read this when it came out in paperback, but then I picked it up in the library and the opening pages put me off somewhat. You know it’s funny, I’m usually okay with unlikeable or angry characters, but something about this one just didn’t appeal. I suspect it might be a good novel for book groups as the main character will divide opinion.

    • Naomi says:

      I think it would make a good book group pick – there would be some strong opinions. I’d say that if it didn’t grab you at the start, not to bother with it.

  6. Lynn says:

    I agree with you, Kay, this one just hasn’t really appealed to me much. I think there are too many others out there that I really want to read… Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Naomi! And I do love the quotes you selected…

  7. Denise says:

    My book group really hated this so much, just me and one other woman got that you don’t have to like the main character and that it’s OK for them to do insane illogical things, in fact, it can make things fun! But you are right, there is not the same energy in the middle of the book as the beginning and the end.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree completely – it can be fun to dislike a character, or to disagree with their actions. The biggest problem I had with the book was it’s long, slow middle.
      Did your book group hate it in a good way (generating a lot of discussion), or just plain hate it?

      • Denise says:

        The main discussion was about what constituted art, and yes there was “good hate”, although it can be really hard to hold onto that thought at the time. I felt really sorry for the woman who chose it, and I’d supported her choice too!

      • Naomi says:

        Oh, good topic for discussion – I was wondering about the art thing, too, but I don’t know enough about art to tackle it in a review.

      • Denise says:

        I didn’t either until my friends talked about it. It was an eye opening discussion for me, actually, I would say even life changing.

  8. Sarah Emsley says:

    You’re always a few books ahead of my book group! This one is also on our list. That last quotation reminds me of something Edith Wharton wrote in her diary a few years before she died: “Satisfied! What a beggary state! Who would be satisfied with being satisfied?”

  9. The Paperback Princess says:

    I was so excited to read this! And it started off so strong and I was so intrigued and then I went off it and just wanted to get to the POINT. In the end, I get why she was so angry but I definitely wish that that revelation had come sooner and we could have seen the fallout.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree. I was just trying to read through as fast as I could to get to what happened at the end. And, then we don’t even get to know all of it – we are left guessing. Oh well. Some good writing and good ideas to ponder as I read.

  10. buriedinprint says:

    I think I just met this book in exactly the right mood (and, no, not in a raging mood either!) because I raced straight through it, loved the whole trip. You’re not alone in having found a lull in there, but I sailed right past. Have you read/eyed any of her others? I’ve got a couple around, but haven’t yet made it there. (As usual.)

    • Naomi says:

      I read The Emperor’s Children a few years ago, but remember not liking it much. I liked this one better for sure, and her writing is so good. I haven’t read any of her others. What ones have you got?

  11. Carolyn O says:

    I love a good angry protagonist, but like Kay, I’ve never felt truly compelled to pick up this book–but now I might just to read the beginning. Thanks Naomi!

    • Naomi says:

      You should read the beginning, then when it starts to feel sluggish, skim for a while (I didn’t because I was afraid I’d miss something – you won’t, really – just her getting more and more involved with the Shahids but not much significant happens except for her drunken dance around Mrs. Shahid’s art project), then pay attention again near the end.:)

  12. DoingDewey says:

    Wow, yes, that writing! I’m not sure if I’ll pick it up, because I don’t think good writing is enough on its own for me to love a book, but I’m definitely tempted!

    • Naomi says:

      If it wasn’t for the writing I might not have made it through, but, I agree that just good writing doesn’t always cut it. Luckily, there was more to it than that, just a long drawn-out middle.

    • Naomi says:

      Those are the things I like about it, too. I was fascinated with the concept of it, also being around her age. And, I loved her anger at the beginning and end.

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