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Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

One-sentence summary:

A quiet schoolteacher living a quiet existence begins to break out of her life of quiet desperation through her relationship with the charismatic Shahid family.

I finished The Woman Upstairs several days ago and I’m still thinking about it.

How many “women upstairs” might we encounter every day? These are the people who as children thought their lives would be vibrant and meaningful. Then they realize they’re sliding into old age with a life half-lived and accomplishments never realized.

Perhaps there’s a bit of that in all of us.

Nora, our main character, comes alive when she connects with each member of the Shahid family. Is this her chance for fulfillment?

—————————spoilers coming—————————

SPOILERS AHEAD. Click the down arrow to reveal.


Nora’s awakening is one by proximity. She’s near the glamour and intelligence of the Shahids and begins to think of their successes as her own.

She even misunderstands her attraction to Sirena. She doesn’t want to be with her. She wants to be her.

Although it wasn’t obvious through most of the story, Sirena was quite the shady lady. I feel pity and sometimes disgust towards Nora (almost wanting to pat her on the head and say, “Aw honey, bless your little heart.”). Meanwhile, Sirena is taking advantage her in a soul-crushing way.

To me, this book is also an indirect character study on Sirena. She thrives on other people’s admiration and gravitates to where their sun shines the brightest upon her. If shadows creep in or it might be time for her to reciprocate, Sirena floats to the next beam of light without a second thought. I don’t think she would even see her betrayal at the end as a betrayal.

At first, I was a little disappointed with this book. It seemed like something big and splashy was supposed to happen and never did.

The Woman Upstairs is easily compared to another excellent book, What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal). In that book, the woman takes a dark and psychopathic (and ultimately, successful) turn. This book isn’t as dark.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Nora thinks she’ll finally make her debut in the downstairs world, only to find the door slammed in her face.

Part of the fault is in Nora’s own inaction. She seems to be waiting for someone to carry her down the damn stairs instead of joining the world on her own merits.

Her intense anger at the end intrigues me. Will it materialize into something bigger? I feel like her story continues and there still might be a chance she breaks through.

Or maybe not.

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