“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.”
My Thoughts: Disclaimer: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are among my two favorite books of all time. (I know it is cliched but I don’t care.) So, when reading a book that happens to discuss both at length as well as the authors behind them, I *may* be a little biased.
Now that is out of the way, I will say I adored The Madwoman Upstairs and not just because it is about a Brontë ancestor. There is so much literary goodness wrapped up in a wild suspenseful mystery that it is all sorts of awesome. The atmosphere befits any discussion of the Brontë family, as nothing says creepy quite like the moors and Old School in Oxford, while the various characters, particularly Samantha, hit upon the full range of human emotion and experience. It makes for a great read.
Samantha is plain funny. She is outspoken in a world of very proper Brits and confounded by their rituals as only an American can be. She has strong opinions and, while hesitant to share them aloud, does not hesitate in thinking them for the benefit of the reader. When she does share them with others, the reactions she receives and her own reaction to others’ reactions are priceless. It makes for some great reading.
The mystery, while thrilling and fun, is less the main point of The Madwoman Upstairs and more a delightful side note as it pushes Samantha towards the true climax of her story. The scavenger hunt is a subtle one; often Samantha does not realize she is on the hunt for the next clue until she stumbles across it. The clues are also not ordinary clues in that regards. There is no note stating a riddle she must solve. Instead, the clues come in the form of answers to questions Samantha does not even know she is asking. For some, this lack of a “real” scavenger hunt may be anticlimactic, but I personally feel it is in keeping with the spirit of the book.
While the synopsis touts the mystery of the Brontë family legacy as the driving force of the novel, I respectfully disagree. What The Madwoman Upstairs is at heart is an introduction to the very same course of study to which Samantha devotes herself in the book. Samantha, along with other characters, spend most of the novel critiquing each of the Brontë books, discussing their flaws, symbolism, themes, and so forth. It is this type of discussion which will delight any Brontë fan. It is also the type of literary discussion you do not see outside of a classroom, and yet there it is for all to enjoy. For Brontë fans, you will indeed enjoy it because what Samantha and her professor discuss helps you see these books in an entirely different light.
Of equal interest is the literary theories in general about which Samantha argues with her professor. Some of these conversations are hardcore, drawing on ideas about reading and authorial intent that you just do not see in modern fiction. Some of them are downright intense, touching upon ideas about reading that I have never considered, let alone talked about with others since I left high school English class. This makes these conversations that much more fascinating. It also makes me want to rethink my entire idea of critical reading, which is a fantastic thing for a reader to discover. I love books that push my levels of understanding and force me to review my own stance as a reader. This filled that niche quite nicely.
In the end, be forewarned that while The Madwoman Upstairs does contain a mystery that Samantha must solve, I loved it more because of its literary discussions than because of the mystery. The mystery was a nice add-on but not what got me excited to read it virtually nonstop. Then again, I did preface this review with the warning that I may have a bit of a bias in favor towards The Madwoman Upstairs.
Did you read The Madwoman Upstairs yet? What did you think? Am I crazy?