Bronte For All · mini-review · stuff I read

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Summary from Goodreads:
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.

When I was offered a galley of The Madwoman Upstairs, I was immediately intrigued.  A literary mystery about Brontë heirs?  Ooh, yes.  But it didn’t turn out that way.  I could not get into the book.  I eventually borrowed the audiobook from the library and sped up the narration so I could at least try and fulfill my agreement to read and review the book.

The most interesting aspect of this book is the bildungsroman, the journey that Samantha takes over her first year of college to more properly understand (and mourn) her father. Her relationship with her dad is the most compelling in the book – and he is dead when the novel opens. I don’t buy Samantha’s ability to get into Oxford or her relationship with her mother, but Samantha’s memory and relationship with her father was the part of the novel that had the most care in development and dimension. The whole Brontë mystery pales in comparison and for that I feel I’ve been sold a false bill of goods. What happened to my creepy “vast literary mystery” with comps to Special Topics in Calamity Physics? Is the “madwoman” Samantha (because side-eye)?  Anne Brontë? The whole “mystery” had a very soggy (literally), whimpery ending.

Additionally (and this really, really grated on me), the protagonist does not earn her HEA (Happily Ever After in Romancelandia Parlance).  I might get a little spoiler-y here. The relationship with her tutor/professor, one James Timothy Orville III, is very flimsy, built on questionable insta-lust on her side (? who knows bc she’s never had much experience with dudes and is socially awkward?) and his attraction to her as a good student on the other (? Maybe?). Except for the tempting and very cheeky idea to quote bits of Jane Eyre from the scene under the tree at the very end of this book, the romance felt unnecessary.

I can’t help but feel that if I turned this book over and shook it like a piggy bank those missing pieces of plot I was promised might appear and I’d have the book I wanted to find.

Dear FTC: I received an advance galley of this book from the publisher but then I had to borrow an audiobook to finish reading it.

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