The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)

“Reading teaches you courage. The author is trying to convince you that something fake is real. It’s a ridiculous request, and it questions the sanity of the reader. The extent to which you believe the author depends on how willing you are to jump into [the story] head first. Reading well requires bravery…it requires a leap of faith.”

The Madwoman Upstairs was a good novel, but it could have been a great novel had it not been bogged down by trying to be too many different things simultaneously. The book was, to varying degrees: a mystery novel, a coming of age story, a story about a young woman dealing with grief and loneliness, a PhD dissertation about the work of the Bronte sisters, a story about a young woman who is falling in love and (whew!) a story about learning how to learn. As you can imagine, all of the parts of this book seem to fight against one another, lessening the impact they may have had if the book had focused on just some of these themes, rather than all of them at once.

The Madwoman Upstairs follows young Samantha Whipple, a newly enrolled Oxford undergraduate; a young woman still mourning the loss of her father and the only living member of the Bronte family. It is this last distinction that causes Samantha the most distress, as she tries to both come out from the shadow of her ancestors and learn to share them with the world. Raised by an eccentric father who was obsessed with literature and the messages that books had to teach their readers, Samantha spent her childhood with only books for friends, chief among them the books and other writings of her ancestors — Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte.”Under my father’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels offered specific clues, maps, and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel left the close reader with a souvenir. All you needed to learn was right under your nose.”

Further complicating her life are prolific rumors that she is hiding an inheritance from the Bronte family of immensely valuable writings, paintings, and other possessions.

Upon arriving at Oxford, Samantha finds herself and her views of literature, her relatives and their work, and her memories of her father all challenged. Considering herself extraordinarily intellectual and well-prepared for college, Samantha is rather shocked to discover that she has much to learn and that her one way of viewing learning and literature — the way she learned from her father — is just one small drop in the wide world of academic diversity. As her advisor tells her, “The purpose of literature is to teach you how to think, not how to be practical. Learning to discover the connective tissue between seemingly unrelated events is the only way we are equipped to understand patterns in the real world.” (Note: she falls for the adviser, as all heroines in stories about academia seem unable to resist.)

Coinciding with her arrival at Oxford is the revelation that Samantha’s father — who has been dead for ten years — has left a will and an inheritance to his daughter; the revelation of the inheritance incumbent on her acceptance to Oxford. Enter the mystery: Samantha bequest are copies of four novels by the Bronte sisters — Agnes Grey, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall— which possibly comprise a “treasure map” to some valuable Bronte artifacts.

What ensues is an intellectual — at times much too pedantic — journey through books, history, family, and love. Samantha must reexamine the pain of her father’s death, manage her feelings for her adviser, and try to uncover the clues her father has left.

I truly wish that the author had been able to leave out a few of the sub-plots to give more time to the larger story lines (and to be honest, I could have done without the in-depth lectures on English literature that she felt compelled to include) but overall it was a stimulating take on the the literary mystery.


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