“He didn’t answer, and I thought he might be thinking of how best to fire me from school. I had written this essay at four in the morning, when I had given the finger to thinking up a legitimate argument. Orville had asked me to analyze the use of windows in a novel that had nothing to do with windows. I decided to argue that windows were not windows at all; they were all that separated the savage moorland from the civilized home, Thrushcross Grange from Wuthering Heights, even Cathy from her own self-constructed identities…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.” Catherine Lowell, THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS
In Catherine Lowell’s smart and original debut novel—hailed by Deborah Harkness as a “charming and memorable read”—the last remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt, 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.
But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from her past begin rematerializing in her life, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha plunges into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by repurposing the tools of literature and decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own novels.
A fast-paced adventure from start to finish for readers who devoured The Weird Sisters and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Madwoman Upstairs is a moving exploration of what happens when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.
***We interrupt our regularly scheduled historical fiction recommendations for a contemporary novel.***
There are two reasons I decided to include THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS in this feed:
- Fans of the Brontë sisters’ novels will bask in the many references and correlations.
- It is just too good not to recommend.
Rarely is a narrative voice so charming, awkward, and hilarious as it is in THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS. I laughed out loud through the entire book. Samantha Whipple–Brontë descendant, Oxford student, grieving daughter–is delightfully inept in every possible way. She is all of us at our worst moments, and we root for her and feel for her because of it.
Though it’s hard to imagine, think of this novel as if it were a hilarious and more accessible version of Byatt’s POSSESSION. There is family drama, scholarship, conflict, and a dash of romance. Anglophiles rejoice: British humor, setting, and flavor are in full effect.
If you need a well written book that–in spite of serious themes–will lift your spirits, I cannot recommend THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS enough. I purposefully drew out the reading of this novel because I didn’t want it to end, and I’m sad every day that I can’t keep going. There is something in the book for everyone, and I will not only be a forever-fan of Catherine Lowell, but I will hand-sell THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS everywhere I go.
Have you read it? What do you think? What is your favorite British humor novel or film?