5 passages from The Woman Upstairs because I just can’t


It’s not that Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs was my favorite book ever, or even the best book I’ve read this year. It’s that the opportunities for analysis in Messud’s lovely fifth novel are so ripe, so abundant, that I have found myself for more than a week overwhelmed by the possibilities of this review, by the intellectual tangents and gender-theory diatribes it might inspire. The 16-year-old living inside of me who never really “got” the appeal of Virginia Woolf is afraid I wouldn’t do The Woman Upstairs justice.

So instead here are five passages from TWU, which is about an elementary-school teacher who becomes enamored of a new student and his family. If you don’t like these quotes, you won’t like the novel. If you do, pick it up post-haste.

“The second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get to my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly goneโ€”they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and cute outfits and they care how their hair looks! In the third grade. They care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics. How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in a place where being female means playing dumb and looking good? Even worse on your tombstone than “dutiful daughter” is “looked good”; everyone used to know that. But we’re lost in a world of appearances now.” [4]


“Obviously what strength was all along was the ability to say ‘Fuck off’ to the lot of it, to turn your back on all the suffering and contemplate, unmolested, your own desires above all. Men have generations of practice at this. Men have figured out how to spawn children and leave them to others to raise, how to placate their mothers with a mere phone call from afar, how to insist, as calmly as if insisting that the sun is in the sky, as if any other possibility were madness, that their work, of all things, is what mustโ€”and must firstโ€”be done. Such a strength has, in its youthful vision, no dogs or gardens or picnics, no children, no sky: it is focused only on one thing, whether it’s on money, or on power, or on a paintbrush and a canvas. It’s a failure of vision, in fact, anyone with half a brain can see that. It’s myopia. But it’s what it takes. You need to see everything elseโ€”everyone elseโ€”as expendable, as less than yourself.” [18]


“It makes sense that if you stand almost daily in the middle of a perfect crescent of shore, with a vista open to eternity, you’ll conceive of possibility differently from someone raised in a wooded valley or among the canyons of a big city.” [19]


“And it explains much about me, too, about the limits of my experience, about the fact that the person I am in my head is so far from the person I am in the world. Nobody would know me from my own description of myself; which is why, when called upon (rarely, I grant) to provide an account, I tailor it, I adapt it, I try to provide an outline that can, in some way, correlate to the outline that people understand me to haveโ€”that, I suppose, I actually have, at this point. But who I am in my head, very few people really get to see that. Almost none. It’s the most precious gift I can give, to bring her out of hiding. Maybe I’ve learned it’s a mistake to reveal her at all.” [21]


“When you’re a girl, you never let on that you are proud, or that you know you’re better at history, or biology, or French, than the girl who sits beside you and is eighteen months older. Instead you gush about how good she is at putting on nail polish or at talking to boys, and you roll your eyes at the vaunted difficulty of the history/biology/French test and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be such a disaster! I’m so scared!’ and you put yourself down whenever you can so that people won’t feel threatened by you, so they’ll like you, because you wouldn’t want them to know that in your heart, you are proud, and maybe even haughty, and are riven by thoughts the revelation of which would show everyone how deeply Not Nice you are. You learn a whole other polite way of speaking to the people who mustn’t see you clearly, and you knowโ€”you get told by othersโ€”that they think you’re really sweet, and you feel a thrill of triumph: ‘Yes, I’m good at history/biology/French, and I’m good at this, too.’ It doesn’t ever occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable.” [22-3]


TITLE: The Woman Upstairs
AUTHOR: Claire Messud
PAGES: 302 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Emperor’s Children, The Last Life
SORTA LIKE:ย Virginia Woolf writes Notes on a Scandal
FIRST LINE: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”

7 thoughts on “5 passages from The Woman Upstairs because I just can’t”

  1. Thank you for posting these excerpts. I’ve been searching for a good read, and you’ve inspired me to check out Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs.” I look forward to your review!

  2. I don’t know why I haven’t read this book yet, because clearly I’m going to love it. Big time. Thank you for another inspiring nudge.

    I even have another excerpt to add, which I found on Goodreads a while back:

    โ€œHow angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

    I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone — every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? 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; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is F**K YOU ALL.โ€
    โ€• Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. I realised I was reading each excerpt faster than the last, as it quickly became apparent that I just HAVE TO get this book. It seems so totally up my street.

  4. Just found your blog….the rabbit’s hole led me here as I was digging for nibbles about The Dog Stars, which I am about half through and loving….digressing….Sorry Television is now bookmarked and will be my first stop when seeking a new read. After reading those excerpts, The Woman Upstairs is now on my list. Thank you!!

    1. I’m legit jealous that you’re getting to enjoy Dog Stars for the first time. Thanks so much for reading!

  5. Great way to review this book! I loved it, but I had so many highlighted lines that it was almost impossible to figure out how to write a review of it. I did it – and I like it okay – but I like yours more.
    Glad I stumbled onto your blog tonight. I’ll be back!

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