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Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

A long time ago, when I started working for the local youth centre, my boss, who was a very wise woman, said, “Everybody has prejudices.”

Because in those days I wasn’t used to admitting that I could be in the wrong, that I couldn’t turn my mind round to be “good” or “right”, I outwardly agreed and inwardly thought – “surely it’s possible to clear your mind of any prejudices you might have??”

Since then, years of living in the real world and a slightly less off-with-the-fairies approach to life have shown me the truth of her words and I’m happy to admit that I can be as prejudiced and closed minded as the next person.

For example, one of my prejudices is towards people who have to like a main character to be able to enjoy a book.  Frankly, I find myself wondering why they can’t let go of feeling that they need to get some sort of vicarious friendship from this character and see their liking or disliking of the character as just another intellectual theme that makes up their reading of the book.  “I see myself,” I find myself thinking righteously, “as someone who is always able to engage in a book if I can see that the author has clearly thought out intentions.” The only time when I give up on a book is if I feel that the author doesn’t have clear intentions, or if I feel that they lack the technical skill to pull off their intentions properly.

Our book for this month’s book group was The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, and there is a main character that half the group really hated, yet again. One of our group, Philippe, said, “We need to read a book that isn’t essentially the same as all the books we’ve read so far!” (which are all about repressed, slightly inferior characters feeling, well, inferior in the shadow of one far more shiningly pure.)  So we all agreed that our next book would be One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It was only a few days afterwards that someone mentioned “Magic Realism” that I did a double take and thought, “What??  No-one told me it was Magic Realism!?”

I’m not a big fan of magic realism.  I’ve read Paulo Coelho with the thought bubble “I suppose he thinks this is deep??” almost visibly hovering above my head.  I’m struggling with this Garcia Marquez and I’m only on page 18. However, he got a Nobel Prize for this book, so clearly it’s just me and my Magic Realism prejudices, and I’m also clearly not the intellectual reader I thought I was.

Anyway, The Woman Upstairs is the story of Nora, an elementary school teacher and part time artist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She is nearing forty, never married (although got close to it once) and frankly, is feeling a bit empty.  A charming new boy, Reza Shahid, joins her class, and Nora finds herself becoming close to the family, mother Sirena and father Skander.  Sirena is a famous artist and Skander a well known academic.  This is the story of how Nora falls for this family, and the relative mutual needs or otherwise of these four individuals towards each other.

I liked the book because I think that Nora’s type of character, one who puts aside their needs and holds back from going for their ambitions and relationships, really exists, but tends to be marginalised in fiction, because these characteristics don’t easily make for sympathetic characters.  It’s not a pretty story, and I didn’t like Nora, but it was interesting to see the process of that kind withdrawing from the world, and the emotion that our narrator shows as she tells the story in retrospect.

This cut no ice with a lot of the group.  They are pretty harsh when they don’t like a book!  But, as with all our other hate-the-character fests over the previous months, we got some good discussions out of it.

We spent most of the evening engaged in major discussion over the contrasts in Sirena, as a successful artist, and Nora, an unsuccessful one.  Firstly, what made an artist, which we at least agreed was a combination of attitude (creative way of thinking) and commitment (ability to avoid distraction).  Opinion varied wildly as to how much was weighted each way, with some thinking that artistry resides in an attitude that you can sense when you are with that person, regardless of how uncluttered their life is and how free to be an artist.  Others thought that you had to be totally ruthless and focussed to be an artist, although some of us argued that was only necessary if you wanted to become “successful”, whatever that meant.

I got a lot out of this discussion, as I would never have seen the book’s Artistic arguments as so significant if I hadn’t realised how different other people’s views of art were.  It definitely made me think much more about what I really am and yet again about how cluttered or otherwise I should allow my life to be.

The Artistic argument led onto another very interesting discussion about whether Sirena’s betrayal of Nora, which Nora harps on about from the very start, really is a betrayal, or just a consequence of artistic dedication? It just goes to show that famous people aren’t necessarily all that nice, which reminds me of something a television producer ex-boyfriend of mine used to tell me: “All those television presenters – they’re all egomaniacs.”  And I used to say, “What, even so and so, who looks so lovely and friendly??” And he’d say “Yep.  Otherwise they wouldn’t be on television.”  I couldn’t quite comprehend it at the time, but ultimately, I realised that that ruthlessness in getting to the top of a very competitive profession made sense.

This was backed up by the things one of our group, who’d done a lot of technically creative work on children’s television, said – it seems, some of those children’s television presenters are really horrible!



  1. Maria

    I thoroughly enjoyed one hundred years of solitude. it’s one of my favorites I’ve not read it for many years. I also loved his novel love in the time of cholera.

    • I’m still struggling, but I’m now looking for a way of reading it, now I know that you have got something out of it. It’s a challenge.

      • Maria

        I was told to read it and think of it as a philosophical text. I don’t know if this will help make it bearable for you. I admit I struggled with it but what I took away from it was worthwhile. It certainly is not a easy read. Good luck.

  2. Great review, I’m with you, I didn’t mind not liking Nora – all I needed was to understand her, and I did. Who hasn’t felt at times like they have missed out, made the wrong decision, been dealt a wrong hand?

  3. Wait a minute… are you telling me I don’t actually have to like everybody? 😉

    I, too, have been thinking a lot, recently, about what makes “art” ART. Who gets to decide….

    And yes, the acting that goes on–makes us believe that the people in front of the camera are real people. But they’re only the personas they’ve developed.

    • I think art is an original creation, for a purpose beyond merely the useful and which is intended to convey a comment on something beyond its being.

      I’m aware though that my definition is somewhat generous regarding well intentioned but really terrible creations. Is that still art? As you say, who gets to decide? Good question…

  4. This book sounds interesting Denise, fab review as always! I agree that TV Presenters in the main sound like a bunch of egomaniacs…

    I used to be obsessed with being famous when I was younger and shudder at those memories now. I think it’s because fame = money to me, and I thought it would be the only way I’d ever have any. That’s what growing up without any does to you I guess. Fortunately I came to my senses some years ago and realised that money wasn’t everything, and being happy and comfortable financially would make for a far more rewarding life 🙂

    • I used to like the idea of being famous when I was younger. For me it was to do with having a place in the world and being recognised. It comes from my family not really being interested in who I was on a deeper level, and not really taking any interest in the things I did, on an everyday level. I wanted to belong and the idea of fame equalled belonging in other people’s hearts.

      Now I realise that this desire for belonging is universal and much better served on a more local level, much like your realisation that being happy was a better priority.

      I don’t think I ever had any plans as to how I would become famous though. It’s not like I’m a really good singer who could make it onto X-factor or anything.

  5. Jennifer

    I tried to read Coelho too. I started with The Alchemist and read maybe 30 pages. Not profound. Rather silly. Sort of airy-new age blather. I like that you read books to read – not to merge into characters. If we only read to be recognized in the book, there wouldn’t be much to read.

    • I was also put out to read somewhere that Coelho wrote the book in two weeks flat. Apparently it was “already written inside him”. Two weeks of profundity. Hmmm.

      • Jennifer

        Profundity that isn’t profound – we should write books ……….

  6. So many things to comment on here! But I will just say this (or these) I like to have one character to follow in a book (not that there aren’t many), but one character I can identify with. If anything bad happens to the others, the one will somehow pull me through. Like in a horror movie.

    What makes an artist? Well I will rely on my belief that degrees would not be given in art (visual art, or other disciplines) if there were not standards. And it is my belief that a painting can be in a dark room (a painting that “works”) and still be a fine work of art whether or not anyone is there to see it. Yes, it takes an enormous amount of commitment. And there are distractions to having to be focused, but this “clutter” shouldn’t detract from the judgement of the end result. Or the clutter ultimately shouldn’t be people the artist steps on to get ahead.

    • It’s such a blow when something happens to a character we love, and something that TV and film directors have got into using as a tactic to make us sit up. How do you feel when that happens, I wonder? Does it make you feel cheated?

      I hoped you’d have some thoughts on what makes an artist! What has changed for me in the last year is the attitude that I need to close everything else down in order to steal back enough time to write. I realise now that there needs to be an enormous amount of feeding back in and stimulus and taking on board other people’s ideas in order to develop your own ideas to the extent where good art can ferment out of this. To this extent, I have become my own version of ruthless. Only good friends get my spare time, or else I will only do something extra if it benefits me. With a full time job there isn’t an alternative, but it’s taken me so long to get to that point.

      I have really enjoyed seeing your processes of creating and what goes on in your head, talking over your past life or what is going on at the moment, or just general musings, along with pictures of what you have created. I’ve enjoyed seeing what it is like to be focused. I am not always focused, and I realise after our book group discussion that I could easily be more focused.

      I can’t say that I would never step on someone if I felt they had done me wrong in the past, but I agree that in general you should try not to do this.

      • Thank you for saying all theses things about me and my process. I used to think that a “true” artist couldn’t wear nice clothes. Until my friend (and very famous artist), Peter Forakis told me “You are the artist! You decide!”

        There are a lot of people out there thinking like I used to think: that to wear boho clothes and really not produce anything makes a good artist impression.

        I have a lot of clutter… Like you, a lot of things pulling at me. I have also trimmed down the giving of my time.

        My artist environment is probably a lot like yours (I hope not though!) It sounds good not to step on people, but my surroundings are so full of jealousy and meanness! Jealousy used to be a bad word. Now, if someone does something nasty, the rationale is they are jealous! (And somehow I should be flattered) So it is idealistic to think I wouldn’t strike back. I strike back by eliminating that person from my orbit!

  7. I’ve had this on my radar for some time but it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the tbr pile. However, your report of your book group discussion makes me think that it would be an excellent book to schedule for one of my groups who need something that will challenge them a bit. As for the Marquez, one of my other book groups scheduled that four or five years ago and the experience of trying to plough my way through it is still with me. Like you, I’m afraid I don’t do magic realism.

  8. Thanks for taking us into your book club discussion; that was interesting. I also read The Woman Upstairs and I had mixed feelings about it. I think the main reason I felt negatively about it was Messud’s writing style – I found her sentences convoluted and too much for my tired brain at the end of each night. But the premise of the story was fascinating and I loved the psychological aspect.

    I also want to read (or feel as though I should read) Marquez (and have his two major books on my shelves) but I am not a fan of magic realism either. I will look forward to hearing what you have to say about it!

    • Oooh that’s a good point, Cecilia. I forgot to say that one of the “antis” said it might be a worthy subject but *why* did the author have to make the character so difficult and the plot so minimal ie all in all, work so hard to make so many things unattractive to the reader in order to make this point. I took the point that the same argument could have been made in a more attractive way and therefore have been more persuasive, instead of obviously alienating a big chunk of readership.

      I will let you know what I get out of Marquez!

  9. kateatthekeyboard

    I couldn’t get along with Love In The Time of Cholera. I found it one of the slowest hardest books to get through (and it’s not even that long!) however I still picked up One Hundred Years in a charity shop with the intention of giving it a go someday. I have heard some like one and hate the other so I’m not giving up on Marquez yet but like you I’m not sure magical realism is for me! I’ll be interested to see what you think of it when you’re done.

  10. Given that Norah was trying to sleep with Sirena’s husband, I didn’t think she had much ammunition in her gun when it came to betrayal. I did enjoy this book or at least, I admired it and thought it raised very interesting questions. I’m exactly like you when it comes to ‘unsympathetic’ characters – what that really means is a character who doesn’t behave according to the textbook of ideology (which most people will ignore readily when their self-interest is at stake), whereas I find it most interesting when characters don’t do what they are ‘supposed’ to. I get my own back by judging severely those who judge fictional characters! 🙂 I don’t mind magic realism though – and that term is used to cover an ever wider range of narratives, I find. I’m reading Of Love and Other Demons with a fellow blogger at the moment, and it’s my first Marquez. I like it, but the language is so rich I can’t read much at a time. It will be interesting to see what your book club make of it!

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