The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Published: March 1, 2016
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Jen
Find it here:The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel
Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from Netgalley and Simon and Shuster in exchange for an honest review.
The Madwoman Upstairs is Catherine Lowell’s debut novel and was released on March 1st by Simon and Shuster. It has been described as “a modern-day literary scavenger hunt” and centers on clues related to the Bröntes.
When Samantha Whipple’s father dies, she becomes the sole living relation of the Bröntes. Rumors surround Samantha about a mysterious Bronte estate. Many scholars speculated that her father had hidden away a vast fortune of unpublished works and Bronte memorabilia. Five years after her father’s death, Samantha travels to Oxford to study literature. She is housed in an old tower and when copies of her father’s old books (books she had presumed destroyed in the fire that killed her father) start appearing in her room, she starts to wonder if there is any truth to rumors of vast estate. What ensues is a sort of literary scavenger hunt where Samantha uncovers clues to her father’s life and a potential literary treasure.
Overall, I did enjoy reading this novel and found it to be a light and fairly engaging book. It was a promising debut and I think the book will appeal to many. However, given the description of the novel, I expected to love it and so was a little disappointed. It was a little on the fluffy side compared to what I usually read. Don’t get me wrong there were many things I did like about the book (3 stars means the book was above average).
So why didn’t I love it? To be honest, I found the main character a very annoying. Samantha was a young woman who was smart and funny but constantly complaining about all the opportunities offered to her as if it was a major drag to get to study literature in one-on-one intensive sessions at Oxford. At first her snarky responses were funny, but over time it got a little old. Why enroll in a literature degree if you are apathetic, antagonistic to the idea of reading, and you hate literary analysis? As a college professor myself, I would have found Samantha almost unbearable as a student. I pretty much hated the relationship between Samantha and James. I found it to be unbelievable and a little hokey. I understood the purpose was to draw parallels between the life of the protagonist and one of the Bronte book plots (I avoid saying too much for fear of revealing spoilers, but Bronte developed the relationship masterfully and this specific retelling fell short for me.
Second, the book is described by its publishers as a modern-day literary scavenger hunt but in reality there’s very little in the way of uncovering clues. Samantha gets some initial clues but then doesn’t really do anything about them until the latter part of the novel when she discovers what the clues mean. There is no real path of clues that take us from one literary clue to the next. It’s more like the main character has an epiphany about the first clues and then simply uncovers the answers in the second place she looks.
Finally, the writing while fairly strong, does come across as that of a debut writer. It is packed with metaphors (not necessarily a bad thing) but she often repeats these examples in ways aren’t very original. Here are some examples:
Her laugh sounded like a bottle of champagne popping.
They were giggling and the noise sounded like cheap champagne
My mother’s voice was smooth and light. It belonged bottled up and stored inside her wine cabinet
I wish her editor had pointed out these occurrences because they stood out in a bad way. Apparently the author really likes to compare voices with alcohol.
There were many things that I did enjoy about the book. I loved the detailed literary discussions within the book. I have always loved the Bröntes and found the speculations about their lives and their novels to be fascinating. Lowell’s plot raises some interesting questions about how life and literature influence each other. There are also some interesting parallels between the life of the protagonist and the life of the Bröntes’ literary characters. I found this to be rather clever and fun to pick up on all the references. Finally, the book is jam-packed with literary references and I always enjoy books that use lots of references in clever ways.
In conclusion, while the book had its flaws, overall it was entertaining and a quick, light read. I think many people will really enjoy the book. Deborah Harkness wrote a review for the cover and I think if you love Harkness’ works, you’ll probably love this book too. The novel will appeal to readers who like the Bröntes and enjoy light mysteries.
Want to try it for yourself? You can purchase your copy here: The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel
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