The Woman Upstairs

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I started this book on Kindle and hard-back. The story is narrated in first person by a 42 year old woman named Nora Marie Eldridge. (Ch. 1, ePg. 5, loc. 82) Right from the start I wanted to highlight almost everything in the Kindle. So much of it connected with me.

But then there were other things that just didn't connect. The narrator (Nora) makes several references to "The Balled of Lucy Jordan" by Marianne Faithful. I'd never heard of this song, but apparently it was based on a poem by Shel Silverstein. One could argue that this book is based on the poem - at least it feels that way and is especially frustrating since it seems we are all expected to know the song, as well as the story of the Black Monks. At one point the monks legend is shared with the reader, but it is referred to so often that it gets a little tiresome. It was also frustrating when Nora referred to characters that we hadn't seen in over 100 pages, such as Shauna McPhee (P3, Ch. 4, ePg. 283, loc. 3841), who, apparently, is someone Nora worked with but whom I did not remember. These are minor annoyances and really do not subtract much from the enjoyability of the book.

The book is set in in Cambridge in 2004. I find this odd and ironic for a couple of reasons. I'm in the finishing stages of a novel I have written that is set in 2002. One of my pre-readers suggested I not set it in a particular time-period so that it could be timeless and more relatable. However, I feel like marking the time is important to provide context. In 2002, when cell-phones were not as prolific, it was conceivable that someone might go off on a long-weekend and forget their phone, but that would never happen in 2021. And as I write this, I recognize that it is marking itself in time and in a few years when I reread this page I'll remember the time when I was about to finish the novel (which will, of course, by then be a best-seller). And I also find it ironic because there is a bit about someone starting a charity to count civilian lives lost in the Iraq war and how important it was to keep the records so that nobody is overlooked (Ch. 10, ePg. 73) - and yet just last month there was the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and there were not sufficient records to tell us how many Americans were still on the ground. There was even a reference to someone getting blown up on the road to the airport (P1, Ch. 10, ePg. 74, loc. 986) which is similar to all the problems getting to the airport in Afghanistan.

There are some references to true, historical events, such as the assasination of Rafic Hariri. (P2, Ch. 7, pg. 149)

In the last half of the book there is quite a bit of discussion about art; interpretation and meaning. Art is not something I contemplate and therefore I didn't really connect to that part. If I wanted to read a novel that incorporated art I would prefer one by Stephanie Storey, such as the one we read - "Raphael".

On a scale of 1 - 5

Sex: 3

Religion: 3

Gruesome: 2

Suspense: 3

Morality: 4

Traditional: 2

Sex - woman has an erotic dream (P1, Ch. 12, pg. 79) reference to men's desires (P2, end Ch. 2) a mild self-encounter (P2, Ch. 8, pg. 170)

Religion - Aunt Baby is very Catholic and even died in church. The idea of someone who grew up on an island with no other humans inventing a belief in God and combining it with Eastern mysticism. (P2, Ch. 4, pg. 130) Nora promised to go to Christmas Mass with Aunt Baby. (P2, Ch. 13, pg. 208) Note, the book does not capitalize Mass as it should be. A reference to a woman who devoted her life to Christ. (P3, Ch. 4, pg. 241)

Gruesome - violent deaths and testicle talk (P2, Ch. 7)

Suspense - when Skandar showed up to the studio without Sirena (P1, Ch. 12, Pg. 71) The parts when you can tell the narrator is looking back add to the suspense, for example, the beginning of Part 2, Chapter 5 (pg. 135) When Nora was drunk and took Polaroids I was concerned that she had messed up Wonderland.

Morality - Nora appears to have contemplated suicide but made a decision to not put herself in a situation where it would be easy to do. (P3 Ch. 4, ePg. 292, loc. 3974) "Art" could be considered child porn. (P2, Ch. 10, pg. 182)

Traditional - "His babysitter, young, with enormous breasts, had draped a tattooed arm - the design something Celtic..." (Ch. 2, ePg. 11, loc. 156) Some "F*" words. Political commentary (P1, Ch. 10, ePg. 73, Loc. 969) Hints that a woman might be falling for a woman. Nora is friends with a lesbian couple. Two lesbians discuss with a third woman if she's in love with a fourth woman. (P2, Ch. 5, pg. 137)

Nora says she "had a ...big brother--eight years the time I was nine, he was gone." (Ch. 3, ePg. 19, loc. 259) I could relate to that because my sister is eight years older than me. Nora skipped 9th grade. (Ch. 3, ePg. 21) No mention of her brother also skipping a grade. The age gap is confirmed when we are told "My brother was born in '59" and that Nora "appeared in '67". (Ch. 7, ePg. 50. loc. 672) We are also told the mom was 23 when Matthew was born and 31 when Nora was born. (Ch. 7, ePg. 51) which also is an 8 year gap. But Nora was "all of eight" when her brother was going off to Notre Dame (Ch. 7, ePg. 56, loc. 763) which would make Matthew only 16. Later, when Nora is "about thirty...[her] mother was sixty-one" (Ch. 7, ePg. 58, loc. 784) so that math adds up with the others.

Nora feels like her mother had some regret for all the years she was raising children and that was why her mom tried a variety of things like cooking, sewing, and writing children's books that she never intended to publish but that all these things were "intended to catapult her to something greater". (Ch. 7, ePg. 52, loc. 694) This was very timely for me as I am in the home-stretch of writing a novel I've been working on for 15 years. For a long time it was just about the writing and the dream of greatness but I didn't really put serious effort into it until just the last couple of years. (We'll see how the catapult ride is in 2022 ;-)

I liked the description of the meet the teacher night when "parents come to the classroom at dinnertime, having mysteriously disposed of their offspring, and cram themselves into their children's tiny desks". (Ch. 4, ePg. 29, loc. 389) I could also relate to her feelings about putting her art out for others to see, comment on, etc. (P1, Ch. 9, ePg. 67, loc. 899) as someone who has been laboring over a novel for fifteen years and is just about to release it into the world - publishing it was always the point but now it feels a bit risky, I want sincere feedback but I want it to be good feedback. I'm not sure if I could tell if people are humoring me like Nora thinks she could tell. But I don't want to be humored, because that would just encourage me to continue writing and I certainly don't want to do that if it is not good.

At the end of Part 2, particularly the 3rd and 2nd to last paragraphs, I wondered how many women felt like Nora. I think the author did a fantastic job of capturing the emotions one might feel in that situation. I definitely sympathized with her feelings of loss to think that others, still alive, are going on without you. (P3, Ch. 1, pg. 221, last paragraph) I lived in Brazil as an exchange student after high school and even 34 years later it still makes me a bit sad to think that my friends or family are all together at times and I am not with them.

Discussion Questions

After reading the novel, what is your interpretation of the title? Is it literal or a metaphor for the woman she was "upstairs" in her head or some other representation?

The book begins with a quote, in Italian, from Machiavelli's "The Prince". The quote's translation is, everyone sees that you are equal, few feel that you are. The general theme of this political treatise is, "the aims of princes - such as glory and survival - can justify the use of immoral means to achieve those ends." Why do you think Messud chose to begin her book with this quote? How does it apply to the story? Is there any significance to keeping the quote in Italian instead of translating it? Immediately after this quote are two more. Do they all work together to introduce the story? The Reader's Guide (ePg. 308, loc. 4150) points out that these quotes are all from "persuasive, and very powerful, male writers". Does that influence your opinion of the quotes selected as starting points for the novel?

Nora begins the story by telling us she is angry. She tells us all the things she is and then tells us she's not what she expected to be because she thought her tombstone would say "great artist". (Ch. 1, ePg. 3, loc. 49) When you were younger, what did you think your tombstone would say? Presumably the tombstone would say the same thing that finding the fun house door would lead to. (Ch. 1, ePg. 5, loc. 76) Nora compared life to a fun house when all you want is the exit door to get back to real life but you can't find it. Or, sometimes the doors fool you and you think you find one and use it only to realize that you were fooled. Have you ever felt like you were in a fun house and couldn't get back to your life?

Nora thinks all women must feel as frustrated as she does but that some just don't realize how frustrated they are. (Ch. 1, ePg. 3, loc. 56) Do you share in her fury? Nora is upset that third graders care about French manicures and how their hair looks. (Ch. 1, ePg. 4, loc. 59) Should third graders be aware of these things? If not, what is an appropriate age?

Nora makes it clear that she is "not an Underground Woman, harboring resentment for [her] miseries against the whole world." (Ch. 1, ePg. 6) But she does feel "unacknowledged and unadmired and unthanked". (Ch. 1, ePg. 6) She refers to Ralph Ellison's "basement full of lightbulbs" and Dostoyevsky's "metaphoical subterra". Did you understand these references to "The Invisible Man" and also Dostoyevsky's recurring theme of man overcoming oppression? Do you feel more like you are in the basement, the "madwoman in the attic" or "the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway"? (Ch. 1, ePg. 6, loc. 94)

"Have you ever asked yourself whether you'd rather fly or be invisible?" (Ch. 1, ePg. 7, loc. 102) What would your answer be?

Read the last section of Chapter 2, beginning with "I always thought I'd get farther." (Ch. 2, ePg. 17, loc. 236) up to, not including, the last paragraph. Discuss.

Nora blamed her "delusions of grandeur" on growing up in such a picture-perfect place as Singing Beach. (Ch. 3, ePg. 19, loc. 255) How did the place you grew up shape your concept of what is possible?

Nora's mom said, "unpredictability was essential" and one should strive to be unlike their neighbor. Nora believed her mom was, "frightened of the unknown and so uncertain of herself that she could hardly bear to make a mark." (Ch. 3, ePg. 21, loc. 280) Have you ever felt frightened to do something big that might make a mark? Were you able to overcome it? How? Nora realized the person she believed herself to be was so different from what the world saw and felt like she often adapted to be what was expected of her. (Ch. 3, ePg. 21, loc. 283) Do you ever make adaptations of yourself? Perhaps in a job interview, for example? When Nora spoke about revealing the woman in her head (Ch. 3, ePg. 21, loc. 287) did you suspect she had some sort of mental issue?

Nora described how, after she'd skipped ninth grade, she often hid her intelligence and chose to spend energy on girly things. (Ch. 3, ePg. 22, loc. 299) Do you ever hide your intelligence? When is it okay to hide it? When is it necessary to hide it? Do you think Josh, who also skipped ninth grade, and was oblivious to the social test but seemed happy, was actually happy?

Nora says she "suffered [her] first real kiss". (Ch. 3, ePg. 24, loc. 331) Do you remember your first kiss? Was it something you suffered or would you use a different descriptor?

Nora and her friends used to paint posters for the high school hallways, trying to stir some sort of revolution. (CH. 3, ePg. 25, loc. 335) Did you ever campaign for anything?

The first time Nora spoke to Sirena at school, after Reza had been bullied, (P1, Ch. 4, pg. 17) she looked at "the branches, turning outside the classroom window, the Norwegian maple in its crimson-tinged ball gown, ruffled against the spotless 9/11 sky". What does the reference to 9/11 symbolize?

Nora says, "the point about not to obey them but to avoid getting caught breaking them." (P1, Ch. 5, pg. 28) Are you more of a rule follower or a break-but-don't-get-caught person?

Nora's go-to in a pinch TV show was Law and Order, "because on some station or other, at any time of day or night, you can find it". (Ch. 6, ePg. 47, loc. 633) What is your go-to any time show?

Nora described a picture of her brother as a baby by saying, "he looks, somehow, like an infant of his time, has an all-American aspect that babies seem not to affect these days". (Ch. 7, ePg. 51, loc. 679) Have baby looks changed? In what way? Why?

Nora remembered her mother crying in the supermarket (Ch. 7, ePg. 55, loc. 739) and also the Chinese restaurant. Do you remember ever seeing your mother cry? Or have you cried in front of your children?

"With my children, I've discovered over the years that the simplest explanation is almost always the right one; and that hunger of one kind or another--desire, by another name--is the source of almost every sorrow." (Ch. 7, ePg. 57, loc. 771) Do you agree? Edgar Allan Poe said, “All suffering originates from craving, from attachment, from desire.” Discuss the similarity of these quotes.

After Nora's mom was diagnosed with ALS, Nora was surprised that, "she kept living as though nothing had changed." (Ch. 7, ePg. 59, loc. 803) Nora wanted her "to revolt" (Ch. 7, ePg. 60, loc. 814) What would you do - keep on living or work on a bucket list? What would you prefer that your loved ones do?

Nora thought of her role as caretaker of her parents as her first life but liked to imagine she had an exciting second life and she also claims a third life, that of making her dioramas. (Ch. 8, pg. 63, loc. 845) How many lives do you have?

Nora's friend Didi said that, "every departure entails an arrival elsewhere", (Ch. 8, ePg. 64, loc. 861) such as when her mother died and then Skandar, Sirena and Reza arrived. Do you believe that nature is so balanced?

When Nora reflects on her early days as an artist, she says, "I look back and see who I was then and she looks like nobody I would ever have known." (P1, Ch. 11, ePg. 85, loc. 1127) Would you know your old self if you looked back?

Nora "thought [her] plan to become an artist had been a fantasy of the powerless, and that with money of [her] own - with power - [she] had no need of it. (P1, Ch. 11, ePg. 85, loc. 1135) Do we need both? What is your powerless activity?

There were several moments when it seemed like Nora might have issues with her sanity. (ref. P1, Ch. 11, ePg. 86, loc. 1154) How did you feel about Nora's mental health? Nora reflects on the Chekov story "The Black Monk" that goes: a man was visited by a monk who assured him he was important and talented. "Then he realizes that the monk isn't real; that he himself must be mad. But how much better to be mad in the company of the monk, than to be sane, and constrained in his aspirations, and alone. And mediocre." (P2, Ch. 1, ePg. 126, loc. 1690) Which would you rather be - assured in your imagination or sane but mediocre? Nora compared Skandar, Sirena and Reza to the three Black Monks. (P3, Ch. 4, ePg. 290, loc. 3937) She felt that they had "prophesied" and almost "promised" "a future which had not begun to come to pass." What was the prophesy? Do you agree that they gave her an offer of a future?

Did you think Nora would... kidnap Reza? ...kiss Sirena?...have an affair with Skandar? Does the beginning of P2 Ch. 12 confirm that something happened? What did you think it was? At the end of Part 2, on pg. 215, did you change your mind about whether or not something happened?

Did you have an "Aunt Baby"? (P1, Ch. 13, pg. 96)

Regarding Christmas, Sirena said, "...everyone has a part to play. In this theater, I'm a daughter and a sister and a mother - never an artist." (P2, Ch. 1, pg. 108) What parts do you play in your Christmas theatre?

Nora thought that, "families have always been strange and elastic entities," and that her friend Didi was more her family than her brother Matt. Are you closer to your natural siblings or to friends? (P2, Ch. 3, pg. 125)

Nora's friend from college said to never think of the journey as long, because then it would be. (P2, Ch. 4, pg. 131)
Do you believe in the power of positive thinking?

Nora's mother said, "Life's funny. You have to find a way to keep going, to keep laughing, even after you realize that none of your dreams will come true. When you realize that, there's still so much of a life to get through." (P2, Ch. 6, pg. 141) Which side of life are you on - still thinking your dreams will come true, or already realized they won't?

Does Germany have a bad reputation because of Hitler? (P2, Ch. 7, pg. 155) Would it be better if people learned about famous German musicians before they learned about Hitler?

Nora felt like she had taken on her mother's fears, anxieties and disappointments. Did you think that was a problem for Nora? (P2, Ch. 7, pg. 158) At the beginning of (P2) chapter 9 we see different perceptions of Nora's mother, Nora's view vs. her father's view. When have you had different perceptions of someone?

Nora's philosophy was to "imagine the worse and you can protect against it. If you can't imagine it, then there's no protection." (P2, Ch. 8, ePg. 194, loc. 2647) Do you agree with Nora?

Have you ever found out someone came to town and didn't contact you? (P3, Ch. 3, pg. 234) How did it make you feel?

When Nora is in Europe and contemplates not going out - nobody would ask her what she did, but resolves to go so the cleaning lady doesn't chase her out - she realizes she is still living for other people. (P3, Ch. 4, pg. 241) "You can take the woman out of the upstairs, but you can't take the upstairs out of her." What does the upstairs symbolize?

Late in the novel (P3, Ch. 5, ePg. 297, loc. 4034) Nora discovers a video. What was your first thought about what she discovered? Did you think she was set up? Nora wonders if it is possible to separate imagination from reality. (P3, Ch. 5, ePg. 298, loc. 4060) What do you think?

When Nora became aware of what Sirena had done through video in her Paris installation, Nora thought, "You don't need suicides when there is murder." (P3, Ch. 5, ePg. 299, loc. 4073) Did Nora feel that they had murdered her or her reputation?

Nora ended her story as she began, by focusing on her anger and what it was fueling her to do. (P3, Ch. 5, ePg. 300, loc. 4090) What do you think Nora will do next? Did you remember, at the end, that Nora had begun by telling us about her anger and rage? (P1, Ch. 1, ePg. 3)


What does the Fun House represent for Nora? Why does she feel it's impossible to escape? Why is Nora so drawn to each of the Shahids? What do they seem to offer to her, and how do her memories inform her attraction to them?

What effect is created by Nora's direct addresses to the reader and her self-questioning? How does Nora want her readers to see her? Does this honesty make her more of a reliable narrator, or does it trigger the reader to be more skeptical of her storytelling-including her observations and her claims?

What may have motivated Sirena to treat Nora as she does?

How is the reader to understand Nora's mental and emotional state?

Theme Ideas

Serve apples to commemorate when Nora first met Reza in the grocery store. (P1, Ch. 2, ePg. 11, loc. 143)

Serve "hot dogs and tofu pups", like at the end of year picnic. (P1, Ch. 2, ePg. 15, loc. 208)

Serve what they did at the "ladies' lunches" - "cold poached salmon and Waldorf salad, pitchers of iced tea, sweating bottles of white wine, everything served on the best china". (P1, Ch. 7, ePg. 52, loc. 705)

Serve "a jar of chocolate Koogle" like Nora asked for in the supermarket that made her mother cry. (P1, Ch. 7, ePg. 53, loc. 711)

Serve fortune cookies like they got at the Chinese restaurant. (P1, Ch. 7, ePg. 56, loc. 753)

Serve pinot grigio, pinot noir, and beer like Nora found helpful when she visited her parents. (P1, Ch. 7, ePg. 58, loc. 786)

Serve coffee like Sirena and Nora drank in the studio. (P1, Ch. 10, ePg. 75, loc. 1001) Nora also served scones and cupcakes. (P1, Ch. 10, ePg. 76, loc. 1007)

Serve mint tea and toast with butter and plum jam like in Sirena's kitchen after the hospital. (P1, Ch. 13, pg. 85)

Serve a Christmas meal. (P1, pg. 96-97) Turkey, candied yams, bready stuffing, roast potatoes, limp green beans.

Serve "palmier" like Reza got every morning in Paris. (P2, Ch. 1, ePg. 127, loc. 1704)

Serve "foie gras and a bottle of Sancerre, and some very special panettone" (P2, Ch. 1, ePg. 129, loc. 1725) like Sirena brought Nora on New Year's Eve. Also serve quiche and stew like Sirena offered to bring when she though Nora didn't like the initial offering. (P2, Ch. 1, ePg. 129, loc. 1728)

Serve what Nora was served when she went to the Shahid's for dinner (P2, Ch. 2): red wine, barolo grapes, imam bayaldi (starter) and crostini and a stew of pine nuts, lamb, cumin and currants (pg. 114).

Serve Italian Wedding Soup and Nebbiolo in bottles (P,2, Ch. 4, pg. 133) and pasta with broccoli and anchovies, like at the bar where Nora had gone years before with friends and took Sirena to after the road trip.

Serve snacks like Nora and Sirena shared in the studio. (P2, Ch. 6, pg. 143) Flavored breadsticks or big Swedish crackers like enormous communion hosts, wrapped in crinkly white paper; olives, cheeses, cured meats; dolmas; burek; sweet peppers stuffed with soft curd. Tubs of ratatouille, piperade, anchoiade. Endive leaves; strips of fennel. Purple broccoli stalks. Heirloom tomatoes.

Serve Doritos (with extra cheese?) in honor of Nora's dad. (P2, Ch. 9, pg. 172)

Serve Thai food, including Spring Rolls, like after the video shoot.

Serve Falafel and kebabs like the students served Skandar. (P2, Ch. 11, pg. 193) Also serve "pasta salad...Whole Foods" (rotini with pesto in a brown box) with red wine like Nora served him.

Serve Bundt cake in honor of Nora's mom. (P2, Ch. 13, pg. 208)

Serve puff pastry with cream chicken and watercress garnish like the little that Nora ate before she went to the video installation. (P3, Ch. 5, pg. 248)

Decorate with potted geraniums like were on the porch of the house Nora grew up in. (P1, Ch. 3, ePg. 21, loc. 288)
Decorate with Norman Rockwell portraits like Nora compared her mother to at the supermarket. (P1, Ch. 7, ePg. 54, loc. 739)
Decorate with, "jewel-colored lengths of Indian silk...pinned to the walls..., a grubby rug, three small tufted poufs and a tiny Moroccan brass tray table". (P1, Ch. 10, ePg. 75, loc. 1001) Decorate with a "Through the Looking-Glass" theme. (P2, Ch. 13, ePg. 253, loc. 3480) Decorate with Peonies in honor of Nora's mom. (P2, Ch. 13, pg. 208)

Meet in an elementary school classroom, like the Back to School Night. (P1, Ch. 4, ePg. 29, loc. 389)
Meet at Starbucks where Nora would have preferred to meet Sirena. (P1, Ch. 5, ePg. 37, loc. 495)