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The Woman Upstairs | [Claire Messud]

The Woman Upstairs

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.
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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.

©2013 Claire Messud (P)2013 Random House Audio

What Members Say

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3.5 (330 )
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  •  
    Beth Anne Philadelphia, PA, United States 05-24-13
    Beth Anne Philadelphia, PA, United States 05-24-13 Member Since 2012

    i like to read. i like to listen.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "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.


    12 of 12 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rebecca Plainfield, VT, United States 09-17-13
    Rebecca Plainfield, VT, United States 09-17-13 Member Since 2006
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    "Let me tell you about an Angry woman........"

    I read reviews of this book exclaiming what a powerful exploration of female anger it was. At the end of this book I think I was only marginally less angry than Nora the lead character. If you want to waste 11 hours and 1 minute of your life listening to endless descriptive passages about self obsessed, nacissistic, whining, whinging characters then this is the book for you. If you come across enough unlikeable people in your real life to keep you going and dont need to fill your spare time with even more then i suggest you dont purchase this title. This would have made a good short story but 11 hours!!....i might ask audible to refund my credit, too bad they cant refund my time.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    VY 10-08-13
    VY 10-08-13
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    "Pretentious story with extremely annoying narrator"
    Would you try another book from Claire Messud and/or Cassandra Campbell?

    I would maybe try another book from this narrator in ten years or so. This felt like a writing program thesis project rather than a work from the soul. It reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan and not in a good way. I would emphatically avoid another book from this narrator because her delivery is painfully slow and deliberate and annoying. I found myself trying to think what would make a person linger so long on the last letter of every word instead of listening to the story.


    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    KP Oakland, CA 06-29-13
    KP Oakland, CA 06-29-13

    There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson

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    "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!!

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Allison DENVER, CO, United States 03-06-14
    Allison DENVER, CO, United States 03-06-14
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    "Highly Recommend - Completely Engrossing"

    This book was so interesting and so good. I loved the character development and the ride it took me on. There are themes of obsession, betrayal, sadness, and what it means to sacrifice your dreams for a strictly sensible life. You probably won't like the main character, she is seriously crazy, but she is fascinatingly aware of her craziness. I clearly understood her and weirdly related to a lot of her confusion about the world. Her frankness and desperate need to reveal her story to the reader was an awesome experience. I listened to this book twice, back to back. It disturbed me and I wanted to make sure I really understood why. I also just wanted to experience the amazing writing a second time. The narrator is literally perfect, too. Highly recommend this book.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bonny 05-13-13
    Bonny 05-13-13 Member Since 2009

    Mother, knitter, reader, lifelong learner, technical writer, former library assistant & hematologist.

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    "The woman should have been relegated to the cellar"

    If you're interested in a book with unlikeable, unreliable characters, hints of possible drama, obsession, and betrayal, melancholy and whining, endless run-on narrative from the main character, a plot that bogs down completely, and a rushed ending, then have I got the book for you! I decided to read The Woman Upstairs after hearing an interview with Claire Messud on NPR; the book was touted as a "saga of anger and thwarted ambition". While there was plenty of anger, I couldn't find the ambition part. Unmarried, childless, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge thinks, “It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead.” She becomes infatuated with the whole Shahid family, and because of this association she resumes some of her own artistic endeavors, only to let them get crowded out due to her obsession.

    There is a possibility that I didn't 'get' this book because I'm not terribly sophisticated and don't understand "Great Artists', but it seems to me that adjusting our aspirations is something every single one of us has to deal with as we grow older. I hope I'm dealing with it in a more mature, productive, and reasonable way than the deluded and angry Nora.

    12 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Barbara Davis 09-15-13
    Barbara Davis 09-15-13 Member Since 2001

    Say something about yourself!

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    "Potential unfulfilled"

    The story seemed to be going somewhere but **SPOILER ALERT** the protagonist ends up feeling used and discarded by her more talented "friend". It was disappointing because, with all the navel gazing, it was kind of what the reader suspects from the get go.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    jennifer BROOKLYN, NY, United States 05-30-14
    jennifer BROOKLYN, NY, United States 05-30-14 Member Since 2011
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    "A quiet, brave, cringey, fantastic listen"

    I'm astonished by the negative reviews--- have people not been affected by the plight of this character? No, she's not a likeable or entirely sympathetic character, but the story is incredibly empathic. I was deeply moved by it.

    It does not have a fast-paced, ever twisting plot. It doesn't have lots of action. What this book offers is a gripping emotional tale of "friendship", delusion, hope and humiliation. It's one of those books you want to discuss after reading, to go back and read the beginning again. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Elizabeth S Smith 04-12-14 Member Since 2006
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    "Masterpiece!"
    Would you consider the audio edition of The Woman Upstairs to be better than the print version?

    Cassandra Campbell, one of my favorite narrators, was perfection in bringing the characters to life.


    What did you like best about this story?

    The unvarnished truth of the protagonist's deepest feelings, exposed in a way that not only rang true, but as Messud so eloquently writes "there's that room inside your mind where you are most freely and unconcernedly yourself and then there are the many layers of masquerade by which you protect that skinless core." We got to see both the guarded and unguarded Nora and thus, live inside her skin - the gift of a brilliant storyteller.


    What does Cassandra Campbell bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Perfectly expressed nuances for each character.


    If you could take any character from The Woman Upstairs out to dinner, who would it be and why?

    Nora, because, in the end, she was the most authentic.


    Any additional comments?

    I was almost turned away from choosing this book because of negative reviews, which is why I took the time to write this one. Don't miss this book it is well worth your credit!

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Anne 01-05-14
    Anne 01-05-14
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    "Why bother?"

    I may not feel fondness for them, but I can usually grow interested in unlikeable characters as I come to understand the history or motives that drive them, or even the necessities of the plot. Liking the character is the least of my requirements for a compelling read. In this special case, I spent the entire considerable length of this recording feeling my dislike grow into loathing for the main character and feeling worse and worse about listening. What was the point of this unremitting avalanche of hatred, with every plot development and nuance carefully detailed? She comes across not as mentally ill, but just as a really crummy person.

    Why bother listening (or reading) about a person who is unremittingly self absorbed and selfish, who has no redeeming qualities and who is swindled by people equally selfish, albeit more glamorous and well dressed? In my case I guess I was holding out for some meaning beyond that there are people in life one should avoid. The only lesson I learned was to avoid Clare Messud.

    I disliked the narration as well, but given how awful the character was, perhaps that was good reading.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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