Review: The Woman Upstairs

"The very fact that I can tell you without blinking that I could kill them - that above all I could kill her - says all that needs to be said.  Oh, don't worry, I won't.  I'm harmless.  We Women Upstairs are that, too.  But I could."

Author Claire Messud is reviving the angry feminist of the 1970s.  In her newest novel, The Woman Upstairs, she creates a very angry protagonist: Nora Elridge.  Why is Nora so angry?  It might be because she is well into middle-age and never married or had children.  It might be because she abandoned her dreams of becoming an artist and instead settled for being an elementary school teacher.  It might be because the world has marginalized her or because she never managed to leave her small hometown.  It might be any of these things.  As a narrator, Nora is incredibly unreliable.  She lies enough to herself that it makes it difficult for the reader to take her complaints seriously.

We find discover all of this in the first fifty pages of the novel which were quite interesting.  Unfortunately, Claire's Nora's ranting continues on for another 200 pages...which left us glassy eyed.

We continued glassy eyed as Nora befriends a newly-arrived family whose son is placed in Nora's class.  Sirena, Skandar and Reza Shahid are everything Nora is not...more fuel for the fire.  Nora internally rants and raves (we call it whining) over the unfairness of life while simultaneously - and rather creepily, if you ask us - further inserting herself into the Shahid family.

Pages and pages and pages continue on in this fashion.

We did perk up for the final twenty pages when Messud inserts an evil little twist.  Did that twist make it worth reading the novel?  Not for us.  We just didn't have enough of that angry feminist in us.  We spent most of our time wishing Nora would shut the hell up and go chase her dreams.  Instead, Nora found every excuse in the book for not taking control of her own life and then blamed her failures on the world.  Other readers may possess more patience for this than we did.

The Woman Upstairs

Title:  The Woman Upstairs
Author:  Claire Messud
Publisher: Knopf
Pages:  272
Source:  Library Copy

Rating:  3 Stars just because we're feeling generous today.  But only on the condition she stops writing such whiny characters.


  1. Hmmm. My antennae was vibrating a bit when I saw the review in EW. I am all about creepy and twisty and sadistic, but whiny won't do. I need a little more evil than whiny.

  2. Nora sounds pretty irritating. Not sure I could take 250 pages of her.

  3. Oooh, yours is the first icy review I've seen -- I suspect I might feel the same way as you so I'm passing on this for now. I'm angry enough on my own!

  4. Hmmm, I wouldn't say there was anything twisty going on here. Nora wasn't a manipulative character (well, except to herself and the reader) at all. It was all internal dialog, which made me snoozy. Good twist at the end, but you could pick up the book, read the first 50 pages, then skip to the last 20 pages and get the whole gist sort of. But what do I know? Clearly I missed the literary value of this one. ;)

  5. She was irritating for me. But I have to consider the possibility that the author meant her to be so and was making a statement about women crying about marginalization then doing nothing about it. ?

  6. I never read her earlier novel, although I own a copy (collecting dust around her somewhere). I'd still be willing to give that one a try just to make sure I'm not being picky or unreasonable here. I get that not all novels entertain and some - presumably like this one - are meant to make a statement. But I'm not sure if I'm picking up the opposite of what she intended - I just don't see where Nora was marginalized at all. If you want to change your life, shut up and do it is my motto. Pffft. :P

  7. Holly (2 Kids and Tired)May 25, 2013 at 5:11 PM

    This isn't one that would tempt me, but your review is awesome. Snark. I love snark!

  8. Jo @ BLBookReviewsMay 25, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    Appreciate your candid, and very amusing review Michele. I had considered this one a while back, thinking it might be up my alley, but I get frustrated by characters that don't help themselves so am glad your take on it,

  9. Snark is what fills up The Complaint Department around here, ha ha.

  10. I think there is a generation of us out there who were raised to think if we are unhappy, change it. So if that's our attitude, we don't have any patience with people - or characters - who don't do just that. I like characters as I like my friends: able to do for themselves and not whine about it. (Gosh, that sentence makes me sound like a Republican, bwahahahaha...I live in Seattle where we're all tree-hugging Commies.)

  11. I possess no patience for Claire Messud. I hated The Emperor's Children, thought it was an utter waste of time. And in case you're wondering, clearly Messud didn't stop writing whiny characters, otherwise you wouldn't have had to suffer through The Woman Upstairs...

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  13. I love this review. I just wanted to shake Nora into action, she was so annoying.


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