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The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

272pages

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Emperor's Children, a brilliant new novel: the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and betrayed by passion and desire for a world beyond her own.

Nora Eldridge, a thirty-seven-year-old elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who long ago abandoned her ambition to be a successful artist, has become the "woman upstairs," a reliable friend and tidy neighbor always on the fringe of others' achievements. Then into her classroom walks Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale. He and his parents—dashing Skandar, a Lebanese scholar and professor at the École Normale Supérleure; and Sirena, an effortlessly glamorous Italian artist—have come to Boston for Skandar to take up a fellowship at Harvard. When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies who call him a "terrorist," Nora is drawn 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, until Sirena's careless ambition leads to a shattering betrayal. Told with urgency, intimacy, and piercing emotion, this story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill—and the devastating cost—of giving in to one's passions.

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  • Christine

    I just got back from dropping my kiddo at KU. A little teary eyed but we made it so my apologies for getting this out later than normal.
    Overall there were many who did not sympathize with the main character. Kathy, Lisa included felt that they didn't buy what the author was trying to sell. While others like Jason and Andy loved the book and felt it was well done and had more sympathy towards Nora. A few felt that the characters didn't grow. As always a great discussion and it was great to see folks from Peter's group, including Peter at the meeting!

    1 · August 20, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    I hadn't intended to add anything to our conversation but in an obit for Robin Williams A.O. Scott said that he never knew if William's impromptu performances arose from "inspiration or compulsion," adding, "Maybe there's not really a difference." I think the character of Serena offers a case to ponder this question while Nora is stuck doubting inspiration, leaving herself stranded from most of the benefit of artistic compulsion. I think I differed from consensus because while others saw her unhappiness as a symptom of inaction, I saw it more as a symptom of doubt in her own imagination/delusions.

    3 · August 12, 2014

    • Peter

      I think that both you and Andy had far more sympathy/empathy for Nora than the rest of us. You do raise an interesting point though (as usual). We never really know why Nora can't raise herself out of the limited existence that she endures (but which apparently fills her with anger?) until she meets a family who live a "bigger", more interesting life. She then decides she hates them when it becomes clear that she meant less to them than they did to her. Personally, I was inclined to think that she blamed it on the unfair world in which she found herself. Perhaps I read too much about the author's views on life or maybe I'm just plain wrong. In any event, I really struggled to sympathize with her

      1 · August 12, 2014

  • Kathy

    Fascinating conversation! Always more food for thought after these meetings! Thanks Christine, as always.

    2 · August 12, 2014

    • Peter

      It was lovely to see you again Kathy. I shall have to come more often.

      1 · August 12, 2014

  • Peter

    Christine did a great job as always in guiding the discussion with a very light hand. The book produced mixed views but generated a lively and thoughtful discussion.

    2 · August 11, 2014

  • Jane

    I'm sorry to cancel, but not feeling well and was hoping to snap out of it. To give my two-cents, I don't remember much about the book, having read it last year, but I did find both female characters disturbing, and was a troubling if somewhat fascinating read.

    1 · August 11, 2014

    • Christine

      Will miss you jane. Feel better

      August 11, 2014

  • Clay W.

    I finished it last night, after a few false starts. But, now I have an unexpected work obligation. Hope to make it to the next one.

    1 · August 11, 2014

  • JT

    I didn't finish this book unfortunately....see some of you at the goldfinch next week.

    August 11, 2014

  • Kathy

    Mary, it took me two tries to get into it and I finally made it! However, I truly dislike the main character. I want to wring her neck!

    August 9, 2014

    • Kathy

      Peter, it will be great to see you!

      August 10, 2014

    • Peter

      It will be good to see you too Kathy! It seems ages ago. I haven't seen Christine for a while either. Nor Lisa, Mary B, Jean, Jason and Clay. I am very much looking forward to it.

      August 10, 2014

  • Trish B.

    I thought it was an interesting but frustrating read -I have read all of Claire Messud'd work and she's always good but never easy (for me anyway). Looking forward to an interesting discussion!

    2 · August 10, 2014

    • Kathy

      BTW, I loved the Emperor's Children by Messud.

      1 · August 10, 2014

  • Laneda

    I am reading the book now and find it very interesting. I hate to miss the discussion but an unavoidable family obligation prevents me from attending.

    1 · July 27, 2014

    • Christine

      It is interesting! Sorry you have to miss laneda!

      July 28, 2014

  • Peter

    Jane, I read it last summer too. I thought it was fascinating and will be very interested to hear what other people made of it!

    2 · May 14, 2014

  • Jane

    I read this book last summer. Interesting read. Look forward to discussing it!

    1 · May 13, 2014

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