Claire Messud

Claire Messud established her name, as well as a large and captivated following, in 2006 with her critically acclaimed bestseller, The Emperor’s Children.

If she were a pop star, she would churn some more product out quick, fast, in-a-hurry. Instead she lived her life, started one novel, then abandoned it. Now, seven years later, Knopf has published The Woman Upstairs.

It tells the story of Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, long ago compromised her dream to be a successful artist, mother and lover. She has instead become the “woman upstairs,” a reliable friend and neighbor always on the fringe of others’ achievements. Then into her life arrives the glamorous and cosmopolitan Shahids—her new student Reza Shahid, a child who enchants as if from a fairy tale, and his parents: Skandar, a dashing Lebanese professor who has come to Boston for a fellowship at Harvard, and Sirena, an effortlessly alluring Italian artist. 

When Reza is attacked by schoolyard bullies, Nora is drawn deep 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, and she discovers in herself an unprecedented ferocity—one that puts her beliefs and her sense of self at stake. 

Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal loves it: “Claire Messud's fourth novel is that rare work of fiction seemingly destined to become a cultural benchmark, a byword even. It provides an indelible label for a member of society (and a long recurring figure in literature) who has somehow been confined to anonymity. Ms. Messud's coinage—the Woman Upstairs—is so broadly defining and so necessary that even those who never read the novel may soon find themselves making unwitting use of it.”

Writing for NPR, Jane Ciabbatri observes: “The Woman Upstairs brims with energy and ideas. In what Nora refers to as a "manic unfolding," she experiences "a sort of awakening, a type of excitement about the wider world." As her infatuation with the Shahids grows, she seems disturbingly off-balance, aware she is making more of the relationship than they. "Both with Sirena and Skandar, I veered between fantasies of intimacy and of bleak rejection," she muses.”

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is less enthusiastic: “Claire Messud’s latest novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” is an incongruous mashup of a very self-consciously literary novel (invoking the likes of Chekhov) and one of those psychological horror films like “Single White Female” or “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” in which someone, ominously, is not who she appears to be.”

  

 

 Claire Messud’s Top Ten List

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813).
2. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
3. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881).
4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857).
5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
6. The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1872).
7. Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo (1923).
8. A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961).
9. The Loser by Thomas Bernhard (1983).
10. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988).

 

New List

Francine Prose

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
2. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839). (See below.)
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
4. The stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
5. The stories of John Cheever (1912–82).
6. The stories of Mavis Gallant (1922– ).
7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
8. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967).

 

Classic List

Amy Bloom

 

1. The Deptford trilogy by Robertson Davies (1983).
2.Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817).
3. His Dark Materialsby Philip Pullman (1995–2000).
4.The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1995).
5.The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003).
6. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (1978).
7. The Plot Against Americaby Philip Roth.
8. The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998).
9. Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier (1951).
10. Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997).

 

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