#BookReview: The MadWoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Reviewer: Leah

I received a review copy

the madwoman upstairsSummary:

In Catherine Lowell’s smart and original debut novel, the only remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt to find the family’s long-rumored secret estate, using only the clues her eccentric father left behind, and the Brontës’ own novels.

Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumored trove of diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts passed down from the Brontë family—a hidden fortune never revealed to anyone outside of the family, but endlessly speculated about by Brontë scholars and fanatics. Samantha, however, has never seen this alleged estate and for all she knows, it’s just as fictional as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

Yet everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from the past begin rematerializing in her life. Her father’s distinctive copy of Jane Eyre, which should have perished in the fire that claimed his life, mysteriously appears on Samantha’s bed. Annotated in her father’s handwriting, the book is the first of many clues in an elaborate scavenger hunt derived from the world’s greatest literature. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha must plunge into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own writing.

For readers who devoured The Weird Sisters and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Madwoman Upstairs is a suspenseful, exhilarating debut by an exciting new talent who offers a moving exploration of what it means when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.

Review:

Samantha Whipple hates hate the Brontë sisters. As the remaining relative, she has found herself hounded by journalists, bombarded at every turn, and told time and time again about their genius and to further study their writings. The only item that makes Brontë bearable is that the novels give her a connection to her deceased father.

Samantha has just started at Oxford University and hopes that this will be a way to move out of the past and into a new future. However, things do not go according to plan. Her tutorial involves a very attractive, yet unattainable, professor who is intent on having her study every bit of literature she hates and criticizing everything from her thoughts, to her writing style, and even down to her use of commas. She is also being harassed by a writer for the school newspaper, finding her name in print everyday; along with her father’s arch nemesis, Sir John Booker. And to top it off, Brontë books that were believed to be burnt in the fire of her childhood home are mysterious reappearing in her room; along with a dead friend being revived. As Samantha finds herself not only on an extensive treasure hunt to discover her inheritance, but studying and reading Brontë more than ever before; will she find all the answers she is looking for? Will she finally understand her father’s cryptic messages? Will she finally grow to love the Brontë work instead of abhorring it?

This has been one of the hardest reviews I have had to write as I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand I enjoy the irony of the main character hating Brontë, yet at the same time reenacting the same features she complains about. For instance falling in love with her Professor James Orville; who is not only tall, broody, and arrogant; having the temperament of Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre; but also as unattainable as Mr. Rochester. Although in this case the issue keeping them apart is not a mad wife, but the college’s code of conduct between student-teacher relationships. Or when Samantha is stranded in her room from a big storm and starts breaking down similar to the ill governess in Villette. At one point in the novel, Samantha finds her journey barred by a huge storm and having to reside in the house of her father’s most hated person, Sir John; which is reminiscent of how the narrator in Wuthering Heights finds himself forced to remain with the inhospitable Heathcliff.

The character of Samantha is very unusual. On one hand we have a very intelligent, sarcastic, logical, and thoughtful person. However, the pendulum swings back with her also being neurotic, anxious, awkward, impulsive, and fanciful. Not that it isn’t realistic to have a character express so many traits, but for the reader it feels inconsistent, contradictory, and a bit scattered. Samantha’s love interest Professor Orville is lacking depth within his own character, along with his relationship to Samantha being weak and having no chemistry. Professor Orville is shrouded in mystery as to his history and background; with the reader never really seeing as to who he is, but just him as the Professor or Brontë-like hero. Part of this has to do with the fact that he is a Professor and distances himself Samantha, not revealing much of himself, so the quick wrap up the author provides in the end when they two in the end have married seems strange and too quickly sewn up. After all, most of what we see in the novel between them is Samantha’s fantasies and crush on her professor, hardly anything in the novel showed that he seriously reciprocated.

On the question of the Brontë sisters the book gives quite a lot of information into their individual backgrounds and each of their novels; along with some very thought provoking analysis. Out of all the Brontës, the author spends the most time on the youngest, Anne; which as she is often overlooked was a new viewpoint and direction. However, as the book so truthfully points out, the novels we read become a part of us. The characters and stories become an active part of our reality, memories, and sometimes even family. So when a character or story is taken in a different direction than the one that you as a reader perpetuated it can be hard to except. There are a few ideas surrounding the Brontë ‘s leading men, that depending on your own view and relationship with the books, you will find either inspired or idiotic.

The writer has a good voice and the ability to capture one’s attention and maintain it strongly through out the pages; but because I found it lacking in other areas I would have to give this book three out of fives stars.

3 stars



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