Book Review: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Title: The Madwoman Upstairs
Author: Catherine Lowell

First line: The night I arrived at Oxford, I learned that my dorm room was built in 1361 and had originally been used to quarantine victims of the plague.

Review: This is the kind of book that gets the cutesy adjectives thrown at it -- quirky, charming, playful, breezy -- and they're all apt. This is a quirky, charming, playful, and breezy read, a kind of chick-lit-y coming-of-age story that did, I confess, occasionally kill me with the snark, but ultimately had me sighing with satisfaction as I closed it.

Our narrator, Samantha Whipple, is that last living descendant of the Brontes, and is newly arrived at Oxford University where she plans to study modern literature.

Homeschooled by her brilliant but unconventional father, novelist Tristian Whipple, Samantha is an odd duck who has a love/hate relationship with her famous ancestors. Her father's obsessive study of their writings combined with the public's insatiable curiosity about them has Samantha wanting to do anything but study them -- but they immediately intrude into her life. Copies of her father's books -- thought to have been destroyed in the fire that killed him -- appear at her doorstep, and her family's nemesis, the caretaker of the Bronte's Haworth home, nags her for a meeting. Add in a crush for her prickly, brilliant tutor and an insta-hate relationship with an Oxford professor who seems to see her only at her worst, and Samantha has a very full -- but entertaining -- plate.

I will admit upfront that two things made me bonkers while reading this book. One, Samantha is a non-stop font of sarcasm and glib one-liners. They're amazing and hilarious but extremely tiresome in large doses, and at moments, I felt like her tart testiness and wry zingers were actually a bit mature for her -- she made observations that didn't quite feel true for a 19/20 year old homeschooled girl. And two, Lowell unloads mystery after mystery without revealing the answer to any for almost two-thirds of the book, which was exhausting -- I just wanted some relief from the wondering and mystification!

Still, I could not put this book down. The mysteries unfolded deliciously, surprising me, and I found myself sighing a little over the romance. It was the perfect mix of nerdiness, silliness, and drama, and I can't recommend it enough for this summer. The lingering memory of this read makes me smile, and I'm almost contemplating a reread one sunny weekend this summer!

Genre: Fiction (Contemporary / University / Coming-of-Age / Father-Daughter Relationships / Bronte Family / Mystery / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Touchstone (3/1/2016)
Source: The publisher


  1. I can see how the sarcasm would get old after a while but it must not have been too bad since you couldn't put the book down.

    1. I love sarcasm and snark, so really, it worked for me -- just in small doses. But the lingering feel of the book is one of fun, and I have to say I really ended up loving this one.

  2. My big reservation with this book, which I know people have super enjoyed, is apparently she has a thing with a teacher of hers? I feel gross about that! Do you think the author does okay at portraying it in a way that mitigates the ick factor of that?

    1. Jenny, I'm totally grossed out by teacher-student relationships and this one ended up working out for b/c there were real world ramifications to it and it felt pretty ethical in the end. Also, it helped that her teacher is, I believe, late 20s (and she's in her early 20s) rather than, like, being in his 40s.

  3. This book has been staring me down from across the counter over recent weeks. I love the idea of it, but for whatever reason, I’ve not picked it up to read yet. Maybe your review will prompt me to do so! (Though it feels like it would be excellent vacationer reading.)

    1. It's super fluffy -- which I didn't anticipate given the title -- so save it for vaca. Also, it's hardcore pro Anne Bronte (over Charlotte!) (which is my jam) so if you're a huge Charlotte fangirl, be prepared. ;)

  4. I've seen this book around for a while. I'm glad ultimately you enjoyed it.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Goldilocks by Laura Lam

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Weekend reads, or quaran-weekend