The Woman Upstairs

  • by Claire Messud
  • Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
  • 11 hrs and 1 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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 37-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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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Disturbing, Frustrating, Messed Up and AWESOME!

this book was amazing, freaky, scary, frustrating and totally totally F'ed up.

this is a story of obsession and insanity, yes. but it's also a story of friendship and love, unhealthy love. of dependence and self loathing. of how decisions can stunt and haunt someone. it's a story of race and intolerance. it's a story of art and literature and beauty and freedom.

nora, a teacher in cambridge, is psycho. i mean...seriously. she becomes obsessed with a family -- not as a family -- but as three separate units. she's in love with all three of them, mother, father, son -- in unhealthy and insane ways.i truly do think that nora is clinically psychotic. but god, what a fascinating narrator she makes for this story. so...i will say without any doubts, i did not like nora. i think for all she pats herself on the back for being such a great person, friend, woman, teacher...she's really kind of an asshole. but i guess it all goes back to the fact that shes INSANE. and so, as unlikeable as i find her, i couldn't stop reading her story. of course in a book like this, i know upfront that i cannot trust her as a narrator and so i found myself doubting everything she said. at times, she even said as much...that she was telling these events as SHE perceived them...maybe not how they actually occurred. but how well Claire Messud wrote her perceptions....it's amazing. i reveled in hearing each moment she spent with the three members of the Shahid family (reza, sirena and skandar). i was excited for every new development that progressed in each string of the story...and how they all wove and intertwined with each other.

i've listened to a few books read by Cassandra Campbell in the past. i'm the first to admit that she is not usually my favorite narrator. there is something about her that irks me. and in this book -- that only lent itself to making her voicing nora's insanity strong and true. it sounds strange, but the fact that i don't love her narration worked for me in this story -- because i didn't like nora either.

i was on the edge of my seat this entire book, waiting for the other shoe to drop...and was horrified and amazed when it did.


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- Beth Anne

Loved It!

I loved this book! Messud writes about themes that many people, especially women, can relate to: the female artist who sublimates her art for a mundane life and career, the middle age woman who feels invisible, the envy and longing for an exciting life and a feeling of belonging, the loneliness that can plague a single woman. Her protagonist, Nora, deals with all these issues. In many reviews I’ve read, the book has been criticized because of Nora’s passivity, her negativity, her poor choices in life, and her unreliability as a narrator. Although I agree that these things do describe Nora, they actually are the reasons that I loved the book. Why should Massud write about a “perfect” character? It’s Nora’s flaws that make for an interesting plot development.

Others have criticized the book for not having much of a plot. I totally disagree here, too. The plot is her developing relationship with the Shahid family and the build up of tension about an event to which Nora has alluded to in the beginning that will eventually bring that relationship to a crashing halt. I was mesmerized and could hardly put the book down until I read about the event and finished the book. “The event” is mind-blowing, and it makes the reader re-think all that has come before in light of it.

I found the idea of using Nora’s best friend, Didi, as a foil to be interesting. It is Didi who lets the reader know, if we were in doubt, how far off the mark Nora has gone in her life. As Nora checks in with her periodically, it is Didi who tries to put her back on track. This goes on several times until Nora decides not to confide in Didi any more. This is when we know that Nora has gone “off the grid”, at least emotionally, in terms of a rational response to the Shahids. That’s when it gets really interesting. There’s a lot to talk about in this book!!

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- KP

Book Details

  • Release Date: 04-30-2013
  • Publisher: Random House Audio