Book Review: 'The Woman Upstairs' By Juliet Messud | The Fast and Furious Inner Life Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs is about a lonely third-grade teacher who falls in love with the family of one of her students. Reviewer Lionel Shriver says the book so bursts with rage and desire that it barely squeezes between hard covers.
NPR logo The Rich And Furious Inner Life Of 'The Woman Upstairs'


Book Reviews

Audio is no longer available


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The writer Claire Messud made a splash with her 2006 novel "The Emperor's Children." Now, she's out with a new book called "The Woman Upstairs." It's a love story, but as reviewer Lionel Shriver warns, don't expect your standard swooning.

LIONEL SHRIVER, BYLINE: Nora Eldridge is what we once called a spinster. She's 37, and she refers to herself as the woman upstairs. We're not the madwomen in the attic, she says, they get lots of play. We're the quiet woman at the end of the third floor hallway, whose trash is always tidy, who smiles brightly in the stairwell. We're completely invisible. But her life changes when a new student joins her class. Reza Shahid is a beguiling little boy, and Nora is captivated by him and by his parents.

Nora becomes friends with the family, and their lives begin to intertwine. She shares an art studio with the mother. She babysits for the son. Her own artwork takes wing. The woman upstairs has found her passion, but it's not art. Nora is in love with the son, the mother and the father. If they were a meal, I would have eaten all the courses with equal relish, she says, each so distinct and so uniquely flavorful. In love with all three, it's a little weird. Do the Shahids return the narrator's affections, or are they using her for free babysitting?

Is Nora's entrancement with the parents erotic, or is it bigger and stranger than sex? Is the narrator deranged? I'm not telling. Read the book. Which is fantastic, one of those seemingly small stories that so bursts with rage and desire, it barely squeezes between the covers. The prose is impeccable. Nora's aunt and father prepare for Catholic Mass "as blameless as lambs and as lifeless as the slaughtered." Claire Messud writes about happiness and about infatuation, about love, more convincingly than any author I've encountered in years.

She fills an outwardly dull protagonist with an inner life so rich and so furious that you will never again nod hello to the woman upstairs without thinking twice.

BLOCK: And the novel is titled "The Woman Upstairs." It's by Claire Messud. It was reviewed by Lionel Shriver.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.