Title: The Madwoman Upstairs
Author: Catherine Lowell
2017 Book Challenge Entry: A book with a red spine
Thoughts: Back in the day, when I was a young one, I had a very specific idea of what my adult life would be like. I was never getting married, never having kids, never getting a real job. I was going to move to New York or London and be a writer. I was going to have torrid affairs and be the cool aunt who breezed into town a couple times a year to kick it with my nieces and nephews.
Yeah. Right? Fast forward. I majored in psychology, got a master’s in elementary education, taught a year, quit that job, started freelancing, got married and am having a baby in about a month. Oh, and I’ve been with the same guy for almost a decade all in my hometown.
I guess I don’t have a real job, so at least that part of my life plan panned out.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change it. My life is fantastic. I love my husband, I’m ecstatic to become a mom, and I really like what I do to pay the bills. But once upon a time, I thought I would have this crazy romantic life. So occasionally, I really enjoy diving into books that allow me to kind of live vicariously through characters that share my long gone ambitions. When I randomly picked up this book, completely based on the title, that’s what I thought I would get.
Thought being the operative word here.
The Madwoman Upstairs centers on Samantha Whipple, an American who is the last decendent of the Bronte family. You know, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, lots of teenage girls thinking that borderline emotionally abusive relationships are super hot? The Brontes. Anyway, she is wicked resentful of her legacy and although she loves literature and aims to spend her life as a writer (#connections), she prefers to study works that are more modern.
So. Why in the freaking world would she go to school in a remote part of the U.K. where they specialize in the writings of long dead authors? It’s like she was begging to be unhappy. She is accepted to a university where, for some unknown reason, she is housed in a tower that would probably never pass a building inspection, and starts the long decent into being obsessed with the very thing she is trying to run away from (sorry for ending a sentence in a preposition).
Her program of study is not a typical program. She is paired with only one professor (obviously he is hot and all brooding and obnoxiously pompous) who gives her ridiculously difficult assignments with unrealistic deadlines. Of course because she has no other course work, she is able to complete said assignments, but (shocker) they completely disagree on what literature/art is and isn’t, what it should be, the purpose, etc. This clash of ideas at such a high intellectual level affords the author the opportunity to develop their relationship on the basis of something other than physical attraction. It’s a good idea. Make them have actual conversations? Sweet. I’m down.
What happens is kind of…strange though. Despite the fact that she wants nothing to do with the Bronte’s, Samantha finds herself dissecting the text of Jane Eyre and fixating on the character of the wife. The madwoman upstairs and her purpose in the book. Who is she? Why is she mad? Who really set fire to the house? Finally, who wrote that book? She starts to uncover a mystery involving the lost manuscripts of her ancestors and it begins to drive her crazy.
Here’s the thing. As a reader, if that were the crux of the book, I would have loved it. However, while that certainly was a big part of the character’s motivation, the main story line that permeates is about her relationship with her professor and as a love interest, I just didn’t believe it. He goes from thinking of her as an insipid American with no appreciation for the art of written word, to being concerned because she is going nuts to all of a sudden, not being able to live without her. I didn’t get it. The only thing I can think of is that he secretly has some hero complex that makes him want to save her and that develops into love? But even then, that isn’t a relationship. It’s insulting to the character of Samantha that she needs a man, or anyone for that matter, to save her and the only way to get this guy she is infatuated with to love her is to be a nutcase who is so reckless it borders on suicidal. What kind of message is that to send to readers? Hey, if you like a guy, make sure you seem unstable. Then he’ll want to save you and eventually, he might fall for you.
All that being said, there are lots of great things here. The setting is beautiful and Lowell’s descriptions of the countryside and the university are really quite stunning. Her knowledge of literature and the way she uses that knowledge to develop her arguments from both Samantha and the professor’s perspective’s is clever and interesting. She obviously knows what she is talking about and writes with a sense of authority that she has absolutely earned through years of reading and study. Samantha’s decent into madness is completely riveting. That I completely believed.
This was Lowell’s first book and as a debut, it was pretty good. I really loved the setting, as a setting. I loved the concept, as a concept, but although the main character has interesting moments, neither she nor the love story between her and the professor felt real. It felt…contrived? Like the author was maybe writing with a certain stereotype in mind which doesn’t really do much for me personally in helping me connect and dive into the story. At the end of the day, if you aren’t connecting, you aren’t really reading. However, if none of the above bothers you like it did this girl, I bet you’ll love it.