Book Review: The Madwoman Upstairs

The Madwoman Upstairs
Published By: Touchstone
Publication Date: March 1, 2016
Page Count: 352
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Audience: Adult - Contemporary, Mystery

I am not often a gusher, but I warn you: this is going to be that kind of review. Catherine Lowell is a brilliant writer, and The Madwoman Upstairs embodies nearly everything I love about reading and literature. In the story, Samantha (the last of the Brontë family) heads to Oxford for college. Her late father was notorious in literary circles for denying the existence of a vast secret collection of the Brontë sisters’ letters, diaries and first drafts. At Oxford, her father’s annotated copies of the Brontës’ novels mysteriously appear in her room and set Samantha on a quest to find her family legacy. Will Samantha be able to unearth the greatest literary find of the century? And why won’t her professor help? 

The first thing I noticed when I started reading The Madwoman Upstairs was Samantha’s unique voice. Lowell gives her expressions an endearing mix of sharp insight and unusual comparisons. I burst out laughing when she told one professor “the talent in my family had unfortunately been squandered in the last century and a half.” (p.4) Whether she’s describing a professor stroking the arm of his chair “like it was the snout of a giant, drooling pet tiger” (p.27) or comparing another person’s fingers to escargot tongs, Samantha always had an amusingly unusual way of seeing the world around her. 

 The Madwoman Upstairs was so much fun to read! I was entranced by the way Lowell wove elements of the Brontës’ novels (and others) into a modern Gothic literary mystery. Samantha’s story reads like an updated version of Jane Eyre, though she is a student rather than a governess. Her professor, the Rochester-like James Orville III, is curt and unfathomable. Storms, sprained ankles, dark towers – you’ve seen these elements in literature before, but you’ve never seen them in quite this way. You don’t need to have read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights to enjoy this book, but if you have read them it definitely adds urgency to the mystery. 

Even though it’s only the beginning of March, I can tell that this is one of the books that I will be recommending to book club members, friends, and probably random strangers too. The Madwoman Upstairs is an intriguing mystery, beautifully written.

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.