Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine LowellThe Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Published by Touchstone on March 1, 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Romance, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
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four-half-stars

In this smart and enthralling debut in the spirit of The Weird Sisters and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, 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 clues her eccentric father left behind.

Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. As the last remaining descendant of the Brontë family, she's rumored to have inherited a vital, mysterious portion of the Brontë's literary estate; diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts; a hidden fortune that's never been shown outside of the family.

But Samantha has never seen this rumored estate, and as far as she knows, it doesn't exist. She has no interest in acknowledging what the rest of the world has come to find so irresistible; namely, the sudden and untimely death of her eccentric father, or the cryptic estate he has bequeathed to her.

But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and bits and pieces of her past start mysteriously arriving at her doorstep, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father's handwriting. As more and more bizarre clues arrive, Samantha soon realizes that her father has left her an elaborate scavenger hunt using the world's greatest literature. With the aid of a handsome and elusive Oxford 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 Brontë's own writing.

A fast-paced adventure from start to finish, this vibrant and original novel is a moving exploration of what it means when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.

Going into The Madwoman Upstairs, I wasn’t in the mood. I’d been planning to read a historical romance novel, but the ebook was checked out from the library. Grumpily, I picked up The Madwoman Upstairs, which has been judging me from my needs review shelf for almost a year (I try, but sometimes I do not succeed in timely fashion). Immediately, I fell in love with this book, which was not the dry literary novel I feared (I remain haunted by Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions). The Madwoman Upstairs bursts with vibrancy, humor, and literary criticism.

Much of the appeal and delight of this book rests on the character of Samantha. The book’s very driven by her narrative voice, characterization, and narrative arc. Goodreads will tell you that The Madwoman Upstairs is historical (it’s not) and a mystery (it is but not a great one), but this novel is very much character-driven. If you come into this book for the mystery, you’ll likely leave disappointed.

If you cannot stand Samantha herself, you will leave this book frustrated or worse. And Samantha’s a character who could definitely receive that dreaded and irritating appellation of “unlikable.” Samantha’s deeply awkward, having been homeschooled by her eccentric father, who did things like let her believe incorrect things because he thought it was cute and funny. Now in college following his demise, Samantha’s struggling to find the borders of the real world and the fantastic world she lived in with her father. Samantha doesn’t know how to deal with people, and she can be quite rude. A

lso, Samantha hates basically everything; she’s a major grump, and she insults much of classic literature in this novel. It can be deeply frustrating to read about someone who doesn’t give a shit, who is bored by and dismissive of everything. That wasn’t the case here because Samantha’s voice is so lively and filled with humor; her attitudes are born of frustration and her odd upbringing. I love Samantha a lot, but I empathize majorly with the grumpy women of fiction. But, if you don’t find her voice charming and funny or at least find her fascinating in her strangeness, this book will probably suck for you.

In terms of Samantha’s relationship with her father, one of the central aspects of The Madwoman Upstairs, I was reminded of the Dodie Smith classic I Capture the Castle. Tristan Whipple’s the genius author who loves his daughter but doesn’t always do right by her, and she’s coming of age and realizing that he’s not as brilliant as she always thought. This emotional journey, dealing with the loss of her father, is the real plot of the book, though the treasure hunt for the Brontë memoribilia is there.

However, as a mystery and treasure hunt, The Madwoman Upstairs, while compelling, is not particularly impressive. I figured out the mystery of Samantha’s inheritance early on View Spoiler » and it’s all very low stakes anyway. The tension of the novel comes from Samantha’s feelings for her professor, her constant discomfort interacting with the world, and her unreliable sanity as she tries to figure out what her father has left for her. Because I love all of that, I didn’t mind that the mystery element alone wouldn’t have held up; thankfully, it wasn’t alone. To have been a more satisfying treasure hunt narratively, Samantha would have needed more clues and more of a journey.

In case you don’t know, one romance trope that I cannot abide is teacher/student romances, but The Madwoman Upstairs sets at center stage a romance between Samantha and her English tutor (apparently what Oxford calls professors). I shipped it strongly and immediately, partially because of the strangeness of this particular educational system (he’s her only professor and they meet one on one for literary discussions) and partially because he’s a very young professor so the age difference wasn’t so great. Then again, even if those things were not true, I might still have shipped it because the banter they have and the tension was so excellent. They remind me a bit of Josh and Lucy from The Hating Game not because they’re similar or even have the same dynamics but because they’re weird and asocial in ways that are very complimentary and perfect. It’s also brilliant how Lowell wraps up the relationship in a way that can work for the shippers and the non-shippers.

To top it all off, I loved the book nerdishness (it’s a word shut up) of The Madwoman Upstairs. Much of the book consists of bantery arguments about the meaning of fiction or of certain fictional works. The amount that I actually want to do a course of study with Orville and have these discussions is a lot. Clever literary jokes and allusions abound. Finally, Lowell closes the novel perfectly with a cute, winking epilogue that you can choose to take as Samantha’s fictional ending or not, and it perfectly wraps up this novel of literary criticism and impassioned discussion on how to read.

Basically, this book is for fellow ship-obsessed book nerds who love character-driven novels starring grumpy heroines. If that’s you, this book is a delight not to be missed.

Favorite Quote:

It was a bullshit parade, and I was the proud mayor. I used the phrases Jungian realism and linear archetypes, and congratulated myself on achieving a level of douchebaggery I had previously only witnessed in shampoo commercials for men.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

 

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2 responses to “Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell”

  1. Gillian says:

    must read yes please here for it
    Gillian recently posted…Review: The Princess Saves Herself in this OneMy Profile

  2. I need to read this immediately based on everything you’ve mentioned. I’m glad to hear it’s not dry and full of wit and interesting characters!
    Morgan @ The Bookish Beagle recently posted…Review: Daughter of the Pirate KingMy Profile

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