The Woman Upstairs (Unabridged)
by Claire Messud
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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.
The Woman Upstairs is a novel about self-conception and self-fashioning — about how an individual sees, imagines, and fashions her identify and her world — and how she measures her self-worth based on her interactions with that world around her. It focuses on the nature and meaning of friendship and love, and examines how hypocrisy, violation, theft, and betrayal change one’s sense of reality and of self. It offers a story of Nora who wished to be a great artist — a creator — but who, through an act of betrayal of friendship and decency by the woman she most desires to emulate, finds that she has unknowingly become a subject — an object — sold for profit and used to enhance the artistic reputation of the other woman. Nora has been videotaped, captured forever in an act that robs her of her “good,” that reveals the essence of her loneliness and aloneness, of her failure to connect and to understand. Is Nora an unreliable narrator who is acting out yet another drama of self-deception to fill an empty, embittered life as she writhes in the pain and fury of her rejection and defilement? That is for the reader to ponder.