The Madwoman Upstairs: A Book Review

Posted March 5, 2016 by Carlisa in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

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.

The Madwoman Upstairs: A Book ReviewThe Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Published by Touchstone on March 1, 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Adult Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher

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.

I was approached by Touchstone to review The Madwoman Upstairs, and as soon as I heard the synopsis, I knew that I wanted to be involved. And I’m glad that I did! As a fan of classic literature, I love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Charlotte and Emily Brontë. They’re both so dark and creepy but romantic and beautifully written. And this novel, The Madwoman Upstairs, gives a modern take on these stories.

It’s about the Brontë’s last living descendant: Samantha Whipple. Talk about living in a family member’s (or three family member’s) shadow. She’s constantly being hounded by the press about an inheritance that she supposedly has…but that she has no idea whether or not actually exists. She just started studying at Oxford in the Old College and this story is basically how she comes to terms with herself, her family, and her heritage. And I really enjoyed it. The literary allusions and ideas made the English major side of my heart happy.

But Sam kind of annoyed me at times, too. More so in the beginning than anything else. She came to Oxford to study literature, yet in her tutorial sessions, she bashed every single author Orville (her tutor) brought up. Like, why did you even decide to go there—one of the greatest and most historically enriching universities out there—to study literature if you hate literature? Bah, that bugged me.

Also she goes to these tutorial sessions and treats them like they’re a joke. First of all, she’s probably paying big money to go to Oxford. Secondly, you can’t talk to professors like that. She’s just very sarcastic with him and doesn’t take what he’s trying to teach her seriously.

But she does grow and learn through her experiences there. She comes to appreciate the authors that she used to love, then hated…but now she loves them again. But mostly she comes to know and appreciate herself and her late father and her heritage in a way she couldn’t before. All while trying to solve the mystery of the possibly-non-existent Brontë inheritance.

One thing I do wish we got was more of her as a college student. Technically, this could be considered a New Adult novel because she’s 20 and in college. But we don’t get a lot of the college and new adult aspect. She makes one friend, Hans, that isn’t her tutor or a Brontë enthusiast. So we miss out on a lot of the normal experiences and thoughts that a 20-year-old (aka me) has. But I guess she’s not a normal 20-year-old, so we can cut her a little slack.

Catherine Lowell is a great writer, also. This is her debut novel, but her style worked really well for me. The story felt like a modern-day Brontë novel, kind of, and I thought Lowell did a good job representing that so a modern eye would appreciate it. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Knowledge always came with scars, and this was mine: the knowledge that the friends I knew best were those I had never actually met.”

“It was a small library, two stories high, with thin ladders and impractical balconies and an expensive ceiling featuring a gaggle of naked Greeks. It was the sort of library you’d marry a man for.” 

“‘Your problem, Samantha, is that you are trying too hard to find a grand meaning in these novels. Usually, meaning tends to find you, in the middle of the night, and when you least expect it.”

“I had an inkling that the madwoman in the attic was not quite as fictional as the world might have hoped.”

I had never used that word before, and I took a moment to recover from its unfortunate appearance in my vocabulary.’ [lol]

“With horrific accuracy, I replayed the last twenty-four hours. I realized that my life of late had consisted of far too much dialogue and not enough exposition. I imagined an angry, bespectacled English teacher slashing his pen through the transcript of my life, wondering how someone could possible say so much and think so little.”

“Regret is made obsolete by the story you tell.”

“Here was a cushion of the world’s most famous broken hearts, alcoholics, and lunatics. They were here, in this room, right now—I could almost feel them breathing on me, offering their support. Austen, Fitzgerald, Burney, Dostoyevsky. Out of all their collective misery came a tapestry of hope, one so real that it seemed almost fictional in its convenience.”

Beautiful, I love them. This novel was filled with quotes that, like I said before, made my English-major-heart soar and laugh and weep.

The Madwoman Upstairs probably isn’t for everyone. But if you have read and enjoyed any of the Brontë stories, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. I haven’t read any other Brontë’s but the two that I mentioned—Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre—but that never detracted from my experience as every book they talk about is given a brief introduction.

But seriously, go read this if you have a side of you that loves classic literature. And if you haven’t read any Brontë, I recommend Jane Eyre. Go go go.

Wait—before you go, here’s a cheesy joke just for you:

Q: How did Charlotte Brontë make it easier for everyone to breathe?
A: She created Eyre.

Hahahaha, okay bye.