Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud spoke to my soul in a totally unexpected way.

As a full-time stay-at-home mom, it can be easy to get caught up in the loss of identity. Suddenly, your life is no longer your own. Instead of spending your free time pursuing your own interests, you are now spending your free time on child-related activities. What was once an awesome career is now just a part-time side gig. Perhaps worst of all, people quit seeing you as an individual and instead see you as mom. It’s easy to fall into thinking that perhaps you’ve missed out on some kind of life dream or goal, and that alone can be absolutely crushing.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire MessudSince becoming a mother, I’ve read countless blog posts and articles by women experiencing the same feelings. With her 2014 book The Woman Upstairs, Messed wrote an entire fictional novel about the topic, though admittedly, she approached the feelings of missed opportunities from a slightly different angle.

Nora Eldridge may not have any children of her own, but she’s got an entire classroom full of elementary school students. Nora, 37, never wanted to be a school teacher. Instead, she would have preferred a life as a world-renowned artist, but life circumstances pushed her down a different path. Now, she’s feeling as if she’s getting too old to ever follow her dreams, and though she truly loves the students in her classroom, she can’t help but feel like she gave up on her shot at being an artist a bit too early.

When a new family moves to town, everything starts to change for Nora. The mother of one of her students is an up-and-coming artist and offers to share her studio with Nora, and Nora quickly falls in love with everything about the Shahids. She loves Reza, who is in her class. She feels truly understood by Skandar, Reza’s father, and she is eternally grateful for Sirena’s generosity in offering part of the studio to her. Before long, she loves each of the Shahids for a totally different reason. Each one makes her come alive in a different way, and Nora can’t imagine her life without any of them.

About The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Claire Messud, 2009.

In spite of the winding run on sentences, the book is easy to read, and Messud does a fantastic job of capturing the feelings of a woman who got caught up in life and missed out on her dreams. It doesn’t matter if Messud is describing the feelings of Nora herself, or Nora’s mother, or Sirena the artist — somewhere, every woman approaching her late 20s will be able to connect with at least one emotion in the book. We all have feelings of inadequacy from time to time, and Messud does a good job of realistically capturing those feelings and weaving them throughout the book.

In the beginning, the structure of the book can be a bit difficult to deal with. As mentioned, Nora has a tendency to drone on and create long, almost stream-of-conscious-type thoughts, and they can be kind of tough to follow sometimes. Early on, I found myself getting a little bit frustrated at the way the paragraphs were written, but as the story went on, I realized why Messud had written them in that way. As I neared the end of the book, I realized that the changing structure throughout was absolutely genius. I really appreciated the skill it would have taken for Messud to craft the story in such a manner.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: Book Structure

Because of that structure, the end of this book absolutely blew me away. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all, and though Nora wasn’t thrilled with the way things turned out, I was. I thought it was a totally surprising and unexpected ending, and I was happy to see at least something positive come from the story. In order to find out what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the book yourself!

With The Woman Upstairs, Messud has proven that it’s never to late to chase your dreams, and she’s reminded mothers and middle-aged women everywhere that a loss of identity doesn’t have to be permanent. As mothers sometimes feel overwhelmed and stuck in the day-to-day monotony of our lives, but Messud uses this novel to say “Hey! It doesn’t have to be that way!”

She’s right, and with The Woman Upstairs Messud provides a great read about a woman who found herself and her identity — even if it was under less-than-ideal conditions.

 The Woman Upstairs (Vintage Contemporaries)Why read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud?

  1. The feelings Messud writes about are relatable.
  2. The story is thought-provoking.
  3. It has a surprise twist toward the end.
  4. It’s easy to read and engaging.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud is a bit dark at times, but it’s definitely worth the read. I would recommend it as a piece of essential reading for adult women.


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