The Madwoman Upstairs, by Catherine Lowell (audio)

madwomanSamantha Whipple is one of the last surviving members of the Bronte descendants, and as such, receives a lot of unwanted attention as she begins her first year at Oxford. Between a bullying tutor, a snooping journalist, a grotesque room in a tower, and a bunch of secret packages that begin arriving, Sam is forced to look at her life and herself with far more scrutiny than she’s normally comfortable with.

I want to say up front that this review is going to be very difficult for me. As I listened to this audiobook, I debated whether or not to abandon the book. There were things that I heartily disliked, but there were also things that kept me engaged and interested. Normally, when I abandon a book, I have no interest in finding out the rest of the story. I think that in the end, I chose to stick with this one because I wanted to see what happened. That speaks in the book’s favor. Unfortunately, most of my other thoughts are a bit more negative. Let me get the no-spoiler portions out of the way first.

The book is set up almost like a story and inner-story structure, somewhat like Possession by AS Byatt, except that the inner-story consists not of actual characters, but literary speculation on the lives of the Brontes and the meanings of their books. I think I might have liked this a lot, except that I really couldn’t sympathize at all with the narrator, and I thought the literary analysis to be a lot of bunk. Honestly, at times it felt as if it wasn’t Sam’s opinions presented at all, but actual literary theories being presented, and that made me uncomfortable, especially as these were real-life people being discussed, and often things from the Bronte’s lives were presented as fact rather than fiction or speculation. Sometimes “facts” were presented not as part of the literary theory, but as simple facts, and because so many of the fictional aspects were presented as fact, it was difficult to pick apart what was and wasn’t true. This is often an issue I take with fiction about real people, and why I generally avoid these kinds of books.

Then there was some bizarre things relating to the Brontes and their works that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. For example, near the beginning, Sam lists out the Bronte’s collective novels, and she completely leaves out The Professor by Charlotte Bronte. I spent a good portion of the audiobook trying to figure out if this omission was on purpose because the author/narrator didn’t think The Professor was really a novel, or if this was some kind of alternate world where The Professor wasn’t published and would turn out to be Sam’s inheritance, or if it was some other weird omission. The book is finally mentioned halfway through Madwoman, with no explanation for why it was omitted earlier. Similarly, Sam is startled by the revelation that Cathy and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are half-siblings, which strikes me as utterly unbelievable given that she grew up in the environment of CONSTANT BRONTE. I’ve only read Wuthering Heights once, and I seem to remember that the whole half-sibling thing was either explicitly spelled out or rather heavy-handedly implied, and even if not, it’s certainly a major theory about the book. I find it difficult to believe Sam could be ignorant about it.

Then there was Sam’s tutor at Oxford, James. Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. I get that this book contained a loose retelling of Jane Eyre, but the relationship that develops between Sam and James didn’t work for me. Mostly because it didn’t really develop. Sam spends the majority of the book alternately talking about how good he looks and how he’s a bully. There’s never anything about him being kind, or smart, or in any way romantically interesting except that he’s hot. In return, he treats her as if she’s an idiot, pretty much all the way up until the moment that he kisses her. When he claims she’s an extraordinary intellectual and unique person, I don’t believe him, because the only thing he’s ever praised her for is the one paper she BS-ed just to dupe him. So the whole thing just felt like scuzzy professor takes advantage of a student who is only interested in him because he’s hot. Nope, nope, nope. END SPOILERS.

I don’t know. I wanted to like this book, and I wanted to find a lot more interesting things in it, and I kept seeing glimmers of things I would like. As I said, I never did stop listening to the book, even when I suspected that I should. I knew that I would be writing a negative review if I kept going, and yet I kept going. So the book has that ability to capture in its favor. Really, though, for me that was its only real plus. Maybe if I’d liked Sam more, or didn’t automatically find issues with books speculating on real-life people, this would have worked more for me. I’m sad to say that it didn’t.

Note: Don’t read this book if you haven’t read the Bronte’s works and don’t want them to be spoiled. This novel goes into detail about full plots of several Bronte novels.

Performance: The audio was read by Katie Koster. It wasn’t my favorite performance, because Sam sounded perpetually sarcastic, and I’m not fond of all the accents. Those are just my normal quibbles with audiobooks. Still, it wasn’t bad, or I would have switched to print. Just not a favorite.

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2016, Adult, Prose and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Madwoman Upstairs, by Catherine Lowell (audio)

  1. Kristen M. says:

    I definitely had problems with Sam. She just made THE WORST decisions and almost every word that came out of her mouth was awful. And yet, like you, I kind of had to keep reading. This is why I have hopes for Lowell as an author because she has mastered the art of making something compulsively readable even with questionable plot points and a horrid main character.


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