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The Madwoman Upstairs

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Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her eccentric father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumored trove of diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts passed down from the Brontë family - a hidden fortune never revealed to anyone outside of the family, but endlessly speculated about by Brontë scholars and fanatics. Samantha, however, has never seen this alleged estate and for all she knows, it’s just as fictional as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.

But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from the past begin rematerializing in her life, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha plunges into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own works

339 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2016

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About the author

Catherine Lowell

2 books311 followers
Catherine Lowell received her BA in Creative Writing from Stanford University, and currently lives in New York City. The Madwoman Upstairs is her first novel.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,547 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,978 reviews170k followers
July 7, 2018
when i first heard about this book, i was delighted and thought, "someone has written a book just for meeeee!"

brontës?? check!
scavenger hint? check!
campus setting? check!

and yet.

the book is fine, but it did not delight. it's being compared to Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and that's a really good comparison, because that was another book i thought i would love like candy, but found to be a little twee; a little cutesie-pie, and not at all living up to its own comparison to The Secret History.

this book is about samantha whipple - the last living descendant of the brontë family. rumors abound about her having inherited an unspecified "something" desperately coveted by brontë scholars, and her own beloved father promised that one day she would be the recipient of the enigmatic “Warnings of Experience,” before he died in a fire when she was fifteen. now a plucky twenty-year-old, samantha heads off to oxford where she finds herself the object of much scrutiny - because she is american, because she is tall, because she is a little older than the rest of the first-years, because of who her father was, because of who her ancestors were, and because of this undisclosed treasure about which she knows nothing.

until she does.

after meeting with the banker handling her father's estate, samantha receives a box containing a bookmark, which turns out to be the first clue in a treasure hunt that will eventually lead to those mysterious "Warnings of Experience." at the same time, she is plagued by mysterious happenings while she is living alone in her isolated tower on campus. there are all sorts of gothic overtones as mysterious packages arrive on her doorstep, she feels people watching her every move, and then… enter the professor.

james timothy orville III is young, brooding, handsome, irascible, and in samantha's private tutoring sessions with him, they butt heads in that typical romcom way that's meant to endear them to us and ship for them oh-so-hard.

"Well, he said, and he smiled - almost. "Tell me about yourself."

"No, thank you."

and this relationship kind of took over the book for me, swallowing the gothic tone and redirecting it into something more breezy and insubstantial. it's not unpleasant, but it lacks the weight of the jane eyre/rochester relationship it's meant to echo, mostly because samantha is so frequently shut down by orville and retreats into silence and submission.

He was frowning. "What is the purpose of literature to you?"

He might have been asking me if I believed in God.

"English is the study of what makes us human," I said. It was a phrase I had learned from standardized tests.

"Human biology is the study of what makes us human," he said. "Try again."

"English is the study of civilization."

"History is the study of civilization," he corrected.

"English is the study of art."

"Art is the study of art."

I let out a flush of air. "English tells us stories."

"If you can't think of anything intelligent to say, don't say anything at all."

I shut my mouth.

samantha's kind of problematic as a character. she's all over the place - she has a hesitancy and self-scrutiny that rivals that fifty shades chick (although more articulate) but other times she is able to hold her own against orville and show off the intellect she is supposed to have. part of it is probably down to her having been homeschooled, unevenly, by her father for her first fifteen years, which also accounts for some of her socialization issues, but it reads inconsistent, and the chemistry between her and orville is lacking.

it's not what i expected, but it's not painful or anything - there are some good brontë-isms, all madwomen in attics and mysterious fires and there is some interesting brontë family-spec i enjoyed exploring, and some charming turns of phrase:

-I didn't know what to say. This was not a dorm room; this was the sort of place people dumped you when they secretly thought you were insane.

-This was not an office. It was a small library, two stories high, with thin ladders and impractical balconies and an expensive ceiling featuring a gaggle of naked Greeks. It was the sort of library you'd marry a man for.

-Her voice was brittle and high-pitched, just as it had been on the phone. It was what baby pea plants would sound like if they could talk.

it was just not the brontë scavenger hunt novel i've been waiting for.

here is where i address the three things that drew me to this book, and how they let me down in their execution:

the brontës:

yes, there is a definite focus on the brontës here. and a lot of it is fun/insightful/deftly-handled. but at the end of the day, the brontë with the most screentime is - anne.

not that there's nothing to say about egg anne; it's just i've personally never read her, and she's generally overlooked when approaching that famed family.

my interest in the brontë sisters is measured thusly:




while "my" brontës factor into the story, they aren't the main focus, so my anticipation of getting brontë fever was quashed a bit.

scavenger hunt:

the scavenger-hunt element is probably the most disappointing. this is no full-throttle romp from one clue to the next - it's a much more casual, circuitous journey that lacks any of the puzzle-solving fun that's usually a factor; where the reader gets to be a part of the experience.

campus setting:

this is indeed set on a campus. and it is also the part i enjoyed the most. there's some really funny writing here, when directed at deflating the pretensions of academia.

"I'd like to talk to you about your essay," said Orville.


"It was - different."

"That's for sure."

He didn't answer, and I thought he might be thinking of how best to fire me from school. I had written this essay at four in the morning, when I had given the finger to thinking up a legitimate argument. Orville had asked me to analyze the use of windows in a novel that had nothing to do with windows. I decided to argue that windows were not windows at all; they were all that separated the savage moorland from the civilized home, Thrushcross Grange from Wuthering Heights, even Cathy from her own self-constructed identities. Windows were the barrier between this world and the next, a barrier as ill-defined as the boundary between the reader and the text itself. It was a bullshit parade, and I was the proud mayor. I used the phrases "Jungian realism" and "linear archetypes," and congratulated myself on achieving a level of douchebaggery I had previously only witnessed in shampoo commercials for men.

and of course, orville loves it:

"It was one of the finest papers I have ever read from a student."

and they're off into bicker-banter mode and it's all very

"I gather that you do not like what you wrote," he said.

"It was idiotic," I said. "Any fool can find obscure patterns in a novel, fabricate an intention behind it, and then trick people into believing it's relevant. I call that intellectual narcissism."

"I call that creativity," Orville said. "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."

ooooh, will they or won't they?

but still - the campus novel part of this definitely lived up to my expectations, and had i been more into anne, i would have dug the brontë bits more than i did, but even that was only a minor disappointment. the scavenger hunt, though... deeply unsatisfying right to the end, and its resolution requires a very large portion of suspension of disbelief sauce.

a cute book, but not one that lingers long in the heart.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Magdalena aka A Bookaholic Swede.
1,938 reviews787 followers
February 10, 2017
And here comes the "real review" or technically speaking me trying to write something that isn't 100% gushing over how much I love the book and failing completely...

Samantha Whipple is a bright young girl whose loss of her father a couple of years ago still pains her a lot. She is however not an orphan, her mother lives in Paris. But Samantha has always had a closer relationship with her father than her mother. So living without him is tough for her. Especially since they also shared another thing in common. They are both descendants of the Brontë family. And, now she is the last one. Now she has enrolled in Oxford to study and it's at Oxford her father's last will and testament will be carried out. If she just could piece together all the clues...

This book is so freaking good that I want to go out and buy a hardcover of it because I want to hug it and hugging my Ipad is just not the same thing (It's a bit too metallic and can be a bit cold to hug). Loved it from page 1 to the last page.

The sentence above is what I wrote after I finished the book (well a cleaned the sentence up a bit since I used a bad word instead of freaking) and it pretty much summons up my feelings towards the book. I have read many great books this year, but this one, oh this one is like a delicious pie that just gets better the more you eat it. And, the best thing is that you don't have to feel stuffed and no weight gain. In short, this is a book that makes one happy, at least, it left me happy. I just totally adore the book. And, I haven't even read all Brontë books, just Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights, and I even don't like Jane Eyre. But, that doesn't matter because the book is so well-written. Also, you really don't need any previous knowledge of the books before you read the book, sure they are discussed in The Madwoman Upstairs, but not in a way that makes you feel lost.

Samantha Whipple is without a doubt one of the greatest characters ever created. She's incredibly witty and I read through this book chuckling and smiling like a lunatic. This is the kind of book that has an amazingly good storyline, fantastic characters, and awesome dialogue. Her banter with Orville her Oxford tutor are especially very good. And, speaking of Orville, he is such a great, great man. I don't want to give away the plot, but the mystery of her father's testament together with her "relationship" with Orville makes this book fantastic!

I loved this book. It's worth thousands of stars. Read it!

I want to thank the publisher for providing me with a free copy through NetGalley for an honest review.


This book is so fucking good that I want to go out and buy a hardcover of it because I want to hug it and hugging my Ipad is just not the same thing (It's a bit too metallic and can be a bit cold to hug). Loved it from page 1 to the last page and now I don't know what to do with myself...

This book turned out to be a freaking love story and I loved it! And, I'm just usually that fond of romantic books, but I all through this book I just wanted the main characters to hook up...

Will try to write a review when I have calmed down...

Read this review and others on A Bookaholic Swede
Profile Image for Anmiryam.
776 reviews132 followers
January 21, 2016
I read this several months ago and struggled with how to talk about it then. I'm still struggling, but I don't want to forget about it completely. So here I go -- warning, this is long, windy, and harsh. I don't usually get angry at books, but this one did it to me. Was it the excellent blurbs from writers who's craft I respect (Charles Baxter I'm looking at you...)? Was it that I felt misled by the cute cover? Or, am I totally wrong; this is a good book and it's just me?

I don't think it's just me, but if someone feels it is and that I need to give this book a better shake, let me know, I will listen. I have changed my mind about many a book in my day (a case in point being The Sisters Brothers which I gave a bad review several years ago and after talking to people I respect about the book, feel I may have fundamentally misread and need to reassess, which is a drag because I still get likes for that review...) In this case I know some of my pique arises from feeling like this debut is so close to being a good version of a smart escapist novel, but that it ends up falling short in some ways that could have been pretty easily addressed.

There are two books here. The first, which might actually be the core of a decent book of literary mystery, has to do with how to read the Brontes, in particular Charlotte Bronte (she's turning 200 in a couple of months so there's a lot of Bronte action on the horizon). Catherine Lowell writes convincingly about the Bronte canon and puts forth some pretty interesting, if off-the-wall interpretations. I thought they were interesting and new, though if you are a literary scholar this may all be sophomoric stuff, but it was fun, thoughtful and well written.

The second book is the story that frames all of the literary discussions. That second book is a mess. You have an unreliable, unsympathetic and frankly idiotic narrator, Samantha Whipple, purportedly the heir to the Bronte estate -- what that estate consists of is only slowly revealed, but when it is never feels worth the build up. How, given how inept and unfocused she is, even with family connections, she managed to get into Oxford in the first place I cannot fathom, but it was her actions once she's there that got the steam blowing out of my ears. When we meet her she's being escorted to her new digs: a tower room with no windows, which she hates from the moment she arrives but she never tries to get a different room? She's given a reason for her ridiculous lodgings, true, but passive-aggressive, naive, and long-suffering Samantha never even considers contacting the administrative folks to see if something can be done about it. But, of course she can't because if she did, it would ruin one of the big reveals later in the book -- a case of plot driving a character, which is backwards. Then she tells everyone she meets that she hates the Brontes (and virtually all of English Literature, despite being at Oxford to read the subject) while clearly being obsessed with them. Really, I never rooted for this young woman, I simply wanted to smack her upside the head.

Then there are the characters around her. There's her tutor (aka our Mr. Rochester stand in) who is impossibly young, good looking, and, as luck, or authorial fiat, demands, the son of Samantha's father's arch-nemesis. Their dialogue, which is supposed to be whip smart, fast and furious, only manages to be contrived and artificial. He of course, while treating her brusquely is really falling for her all along. She is falling for him too and sooner or later they will realize it though everyone around them notices it first. It doesn't work as homage to time honored tropes, but simply manages to feel like the cliched retread that it is. Then there is an awkward tap dance that Lowell does to address sensibilities regarding student-teacher relationships which only served to make things feel convoluted and jarring.

Her father's one-time lover (Samantha lived with her father after her parent's divorce and her relationship with her mother is strained and distant), is a professor at the same college where Samantha is studying. Samantha knows nothing of this woman's presence at the school for months. In fact, she had assumed she had died years before in a boating accident. For those of you looking for cute literary references, said professor's name is Rebecca.

What was most jarring about the book is how disparate and wildly uneven the tone is. At one moment it reads as if it is trying to be a cute romantic comedy (though the comedy falls flat), then it shifts to a gothic melodrama (which isn't melodramatic or suspenseful), then to a scholarly exegesis of the Brontes. Perhaps these shifts are intended to give the book literary heft, but I couldn't tell if it was planned or just a mistake. Nor did I appreciate the rather obvious narrative withholdings. I love a good unreliable narrator, but it works best when the technique is used to elucidate character and the elisions are subtle. Samantha's unreliability seemed only to exist to advance the plot, but because the omissions in her telling of the tale were so obvious, there was no mystery to where things were going.

As I said, I know I'm being a grinch about this one, but I think it comes from a place of wanting/hoping/expecting it to be better. Plus, I know it's getting a lot of interest and promotion and lots of people will want to read it -- cute cover, enticing jacket copy, link to a favorite classic novel, etc. I love a good light read, I just want my light reads to be good.
Profile Image for Susan.
2,640 reviews598 followers
February 26, 2016
This is a delightfully witty and intelligent novel, which uses the work of the Bronte’s and a setting steeped in academia to take readers on a clever, literary treasure hunt. Samantha Whipple is the last remaining family member of the Bronte’s – her father, author Tristan Whipple, being descended from one of the siblings of the Bronte patriarch, Patrick. Home schooled by her father, Samantha has grown up with the shadows of the Bronte sisters looming large over her life. Now, with her beloved father dead and her mother living in France; American Samantha has arrived at Oxford University to study English Literature.

While Samantha longs for anonymity, with her family background, this is hard to obtain. Before long, she is the focus of University magazines, while Sir John Booker, who runs the Bronte museum, is insistent that Samantha has inherited the ‘missing Bronte estate.’ However, Samantha has been taught that Sir John is, as far as her father was concerned, the ‘enemy’ and that there is no estate to inherit. In the meantime, she is at Oxford to learn something and has to contend with her tutor, the icily intelligent, Dr James Timothy Percival Orville III. Struggling with the attention from fellow students, her inability to utter anything intelligent under Orville’s sarcastic glare and the loss of her father, she suddenly finds a new problem. Books begin appearing – books which once belonged to her father and should no longer exist…

I have to say that a certain knowledge of the Bronte novels, and lives, will enhance your enjoyment of this book, although it is not essential. What follows is Samantha’s attempt to make sense of what these books mean – are they clues left behind and, if so, by whom? What is more, who can help her make sense of these literary works and where they are leading? I love books about books, I love the Bronte’s novels and I love books set within the world of academia. This was a total joy and I also adored the character of Samantha Whipple, as she attempts to make sense of her literary legacy, tries to comes to terms with her past and emerge as her own person.
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
796 reviews583 followers
November 28, 2020
I won this book in an online book quiz & at first I was really engaged. The fictional Samantha Whipple, last remaining descendant of the Brontë family is quite definitely a three dimensional character - a wisecracking, smart alecky loner. She has arrived to study at Oxford to find that even academics firmly believe she or her late father have Brontë memorabilia hidden away.

Now confession time. I'm not a big Brontë fan. The only one of their novels I have both finished and enjoyed was Jane Eyre. At some point in time I will try again Charlotte's other works and the work of Anne, but any time I feel a Wuthering Heights urge coming over me, I click on You Tube & watch;

This doesn't happen often.

This book shows Sam and her enigmatic tutor discussing some interesting theories about the Brontës & their work, but after a promising start, the book sags badly at around the two thirds mark. I found myself doing my usual tricks when I am no longer enjoying a book - looking at the page numbers, checking how long it is till the end of the chapter. The ending was a total cop out.

But I do believe Lowell has a writing gift and I might try a future book.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,602 reviews2,575 followers
March 25, 2016
(DNF @ 56%) There was every reason for me to love this novel – awkward American narrator, Oxford setting, Brontë connections aplenty, snarky literary criticism – but I got bored with it. Perhaps it was the first-person narration: being stuck in sarcastic Samantha Whipple’s head means none of the other characters feel real; they’re just paper dolls, with Orville a poor excuse for a Mr. Rochester substitute. I did laugh out loud a few times at Samantha’s unorthodox responses to classic literature (“Agnes Grey is, without question, the most boring book ever written”), but I gave up when I finally accepted that I had no interest in how the central mystery/treasure hunt played out.

Favorite lines: “He would want to know what Emily Brontë ate for breakfast on the morning of 5 December, what erotic poems Anne wrote in her spare time, what Charlotte secretly had tattooed on her bum. It was my own personal curse, being related to the three most famous dead women in all of England.”
Profile Image for Jennifer (Insert Lit Pun).
315 reviews1,967 followers
October 18, 2017
This book isn't perfect, but it's perfect for me. It's EVERYTHING I wanted, plus things I didn't even know to ask for. Smart, snarky, funny, surprising, moving. Prepare for some serious love in my next video wrap up.
Profile Image for Diana • Book of Secrets.
780 reviews569 followers
August 15, 2016
Jane Eyre ♥ and Wuthering Heights ♥ are two of my favorite novels, so I couldn't pass this one up. THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS is about the last living Brontë descendant, and her quest to find the family's missing literary estate - if it actually exists at all.

Samantha Whipple is a new student at Oxford. Soon after her arrival in England, she starts receiving obscure clues to finding the mysterious Brontë inheritance. Samantha was an okay character. She's young and awkward, and tries to compensate with sarcasm and funny zingers. She had me giggling several times, though I was hoping that eventually she'd act more mature. Something that drove me nuts was the vast number of times the characters said "Pardon?" and "Sorry?" to each other. It's like no one could understand what the other was talking about.

What I liked about this book was how the actual novels of the Brontë Sisters tied into the story. I loved hearing the characters talk about Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Lots of interesting theories about the books and where the sisters got their inspirations.

Overall, this was a fun read, geared toward Brontë fans.
March 17, 2016
Guess I'm one of the few people that really didn't like this book. I found the main character to be snotty and unlikeable. Didn't buy that she would be super paparazzi-style famous just for being a distant descendant of the Brontes. Also, didn't buy the love story deal because they never seemed to have a civil conversation with each other. It bugged me that Samantha seemed to have something she didn't like about every single person she met.
Oh well, to each their own I guess.
Profile Image for Erika Robuck.
Author 11 books1,067 followers
March 15, 2016
Rarely is a narrative voice so charming, awkward, and hilarious as it is in THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS. I laughed out loud through the entire book. Samantha Whipple–Brontë descendant, Oxford student, grieving daughter–is delightfully inept in every possible way. She is all of us at our worst moments, and we root for her and feel for her because of it.

Though it’s hard to imagine, think of this novel as if it were a hilarious and more accessible version of Byatt’s POSSESSION. There is family drama, scholarship, conflict, and a dash of romance. Anglophiles rejoice: British humor, setting, and flavor are in full effect.

If you need a well written book that–in spite of serious themes–will lift your spirits, I cannot recommend THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS enough. I purposefully drew out the reading of this novel because I didn’t want it to end, and I’m sad every day that I can’t keep going. There is something in the book for everyone, and I will not only be a forever-fan of Catherine Lowell, but I will hand-sell THE MADWOMAN UPSTAIRS everywhere I go.
Profile Image for Terri.
272 reviews
January 28, 2018
This was a fun book club read and our members either loved it or thought it was just okay. I think my expectations were just too high. I thought it was slow in parts and I didn't enjoy the main character very much. The Oxford setting was enjoyable and i would be interested in reading her future books.
Profile Image for Jenna 🧵.
224 reviews77 followers
March 27, 2016
With apologies to the Brontes - I just can't with this book. How can I be finding a Bronte-themed scavenger hunt academia plot ...simultaneously irritating and a snoozefest? I'm not sure, but I'm jumping ship.
Profile Image for Megan Lyons.
516 reviews10 followers
February 17, 2016
I was really excited to read this book. The idea of a literary scavenger hunt was so much fun. I was expecting a book lovers version of the "Da Vinci Code", or a charming madcap literary ode, like Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair". However, this book was a bit of a mess.

The plot was all over the place, and not that much really happened. The main character was unlikeable, and the romance was strange and underdeveloped. This was perhaps because it was supposed to be an updating of the relationship in "Jane Eyre" but it just fell flat. The dialogue was awkward.

The writing was also a problem. Lowell used too many bad similes and metaphors. They were often very strange and awkward, and took me completely out of the text. I think she was trying to add atmosphere and mood, but instead she just disconnected the reader from the text.

The most interesting aspect of the book was the characters speculation about the Brontes lives and literary inspiration. However, in spite of this, even the depiction of academia fell flat.

There were times where I did enjoy the book, but it was just too inconsistent and it just never really took off. The concept was so great, that I just ended feeling disappointed.

I received an ARC of this book*
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,491 reviews9 followers
December 23, 2020
Even though it's been decades since reading anything by a Brontë sister, I enjoyed how this book dissected all their work, whether in jest or not. Samantha Whipple is the last living Brontë heir since her father's passing. She believes he has left her something from the Brontë estate, but he was an eccentric who chose to leave her clues to her inheritance's location rather than spelling it out in a will. The search leads her to attend Oxford's Old College where she and her new tutor argue about fiction, Jane Eyre's madwoman, whether Heathcliff and Catherine were siblings, and more than I probably cared to know about Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey.

All in all very bookish and a real delight to read. The audio narrator was quite good too.
Profile Image for Alex Andrasik.
443 reviews11 followers
May 7, 2016
I received an advance copy of this book from Edelweiss.

I didn't like this book. Sorry. A lot of it struck me as preposterous. This is a world where the fate and scandals of writers, academics, and the descendants of 19th century Romantic authors are somehow front page news, where characters (yes, more than one) go by completely different names than their given ones just to preserve "shocking" revelations later in the narrative, where an important plot point hinges on a character being presumed dead by the protagonist because said protagonist glanced at a newspaper and read it wrong ten years ago and never followed up or talked to anyone who would know better.

And oh, what a protagonist. She's both an insufferable know-it-all and a pathetic self-doubter, a madness-inducing combination. I think her fancy locutions and awkward manner are meant to be whimsical and charming, but they are writerly affectations that only annoy this reader. And her central love story subplot is completely unbelievable. I could not bring myself to credit the idea that a supposedly accomplished, brilliant professor would feel anything passionate or romantic about this girl, his student. I suppose there's no accounting for taste.

The whole book reads like an attempt at a dramatization of the "author's intent"/"how shall we read a work" academic debate, like someone had a thesis they really anted to get out there so they turned it into a novel. Not very exciting. And the attempts at bringing in the lives of the Brontes as a sort of domestic mystery to be unraveled seem half-hearted and stilted at best.

The sense of life at Oxford's Old College is sketched in a merely desultory manner, and even the sense of place is lacking. I am sometimes miffed at books (like The Name of the Rose) that go into exhaustive detail about the surroundings of the action, but I find I prefer that over the approach in this novel. At least in the former case, I can set up theater pieces in my mind, structures of canvas and scaffolding that I have no problem shifting when new information runs up against the layout I've cobbled. Here there's not near enough grist for that mill. Outside a few trips to the refectory for lunches, the narrative is silent on the layout of this ancient campus and the relationship between the two buildings in which most of the action takes place.

There's character named "Marvin." He's meant to be somewhat hapless comic relief. I find the use of this name for the purpose to be so broad and unimaginative as to be actually offensive. (Apologies to all the dignified and serious Marvins out there.)

The writing itself...it's so precious. It wants so hard to be profound and amusing and unique, but I feel it fails on almost every front. The profound comes off as awkward and condescending and the amusing is just not funny to me. Worse, the author suffers a peculiar infelicity of imagery. I wish I had marked every line that made me groan or scratch my head or get mad at whatever editors allowed it to pass. A couple of examples I remember: a "pile" of tourists burst into the room "like toothpaste squirting from the tube" (or something like that). And the sexy smoldering love interest (who is described rather inconsistently throughout anyway) at one point has "bloated" muscles.

Oh, sometimes I was like, what do these words even mean?: "We lingered in a silence that seemed purely decorative."

Entirely unimpressed with Paris, for some reason: "Paris was nice, I guess. The city reminded me of one of those people who didn't need to make an effort to impress you because both of you knew you had to get along." Well, lah-dee-dah, milady.

There's a lot of weirdly-chosen adjectives to add emphasis at unnecessary moments. "Her hair was FORCEFULLY blonde." "The day was AGGRESSIVELY European." Can you not convince me of these points you deem important in some other way?

I know this is an unfinished version of the book, and I can forgive all the typos and dropped words and things, but there are a lot of little repeated moments--glitches in the Matrix--that someone really should have caught in the first couple drafts. At one point a character comes to a door literally hat-in-hand, then removes his hat from his head. Characters are constantly sitting down in seats they've already sat down in and never vacated. Book are placed on tables in infinite loops. You may think I'm being picky, but each of these instances glared at me from the page, and the fact they remain in the text is sloppy.

Oh, also, once, the sexy romantic leading man's shoulders were "elephantine."

"Rebecca gave me a good, long stare--the kind that could ruin you if you weren't careful." This sentence doesn't actually convey anything. It's trying really hard to, but it doesn't.

You can't wipe your forehead with the back of your palm. You can't wipe anything with the back of your palm. The back of your palm is, like, inside your hand. Wiping things with the back of your palm would imply that something far more interesting has happened. My point is, be precise with your language, kids.

I don't usually write such negative reviews. I feel kinda bad now. But I'm also just kind of miffed at having read this book, which is going to be published with all these flaws. Maybe some of them will be cleaned up before it comes out, but I find it hard to believe there's enough time for major revision by this point. And according to the acknowledgments, it's already been through "hundreds." Maybe I'm just mad at myself for never finishing a manuscript to a book that I know could be better than this one. Maybe I shouldn't take it out on this novel.

Maybe I'm also mad that I was promised an exciting literary scavenger hunt that only barely materialized, and when it did, it was pretty uneventful and uninteresting.

There are good points to this book. The relationship between the protagonist and her parents is nice and relatively complicated. And if you like the Brontes, you'll probably enjoy the role that they and their novels play. Okay I'm gonna go now, bye.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,590 reviews191 followers
August 14, 2019
A story about many things: books, literary analysis and criticism, a father-daughter relationship, grief over a parent's death, Bronte fandom, Bronte fanfic, and figuring out who you are separate from your family. Plus plenty of sarcastic humour thanks to the irreverent and somewhat dry narration by main character Samantha Whipple, fictitious descendant of the Brontes.
There's a little mystery in this story, but this isn't a murder story. Samantha is at Oxford to learn, and she also is trying to figure out who her recently dead father actuallywas. Samantha soon develops a crush on her professor, and a number of their exchanges are humorous. As well are Samantha's many efforts to puzzle out her father's words and actions as she processes her grief and their decidedly odd relationship.
Catherine Lowell had me smiling frequently as the book progressed, and with the epilogue of this story, which mimics the opening paragraph of the conclusion to Jane Eyre.
This whole book is a little odd, much like the clues Samantha's father leaves her, but I enjoyed it a lot, and the book's actually reinvigorated me lapsed interest in the Bronte's books.
Profile Image for Nadia King.
Author 12 books77 followers
February 29, 2016
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell took over my life. I literally could not put it down. Now I have finished it I feel strangely empty as if something is missing. I think this is called a book hang-over.
To sum up in a sentence – think the Brontes, a young American Samantha Whipple studying English Literature at Oxford University and a dark and brooding tutor. Utter perfection for a girl like me, who loves the classics and a bit of modern-day romance.
Lowell’s debut novel follows Samantha, the only living descendant of the Bronte family, on a treasure hunt to find her deceased father’s clues on life, literature and the Brontes. Samantha was home-schooled by her father in Boston and when her beloved father dies in a fire reminiscent of the Brontes, Samantha leaves the US for England and Oxford University.
Samatha’s tutor, James Timothy Orville III, reminds readers of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. He is enigmatic, intelligent and handsome. The novel traces their relationship and keeps the reader guessing with its unpredictable plot twists.

‘Someone left me another book,’ I said. ‘Wuthering Heights.’ I thought I saw a note of alarm cross his expression, but he killed it swiftly.
‘Your father’s?’
I nodded. He frowned. A conversation about the Brontes was not one he wanted to have, it seemed. We lingered in a silence that seemed purely decorative. Then he stood up and walked to his bookshelf. I thought he must have forgotten about me, but he returned with an old black book. It was Wuthering Heights.
I looked up at him. ‘Yes, I see you have it too.’
‘At one point, it was my favourite book.’
‘That’s probably why we’ll never be friends.’

There is mystery and intrigue in this novel. There is also suspense, danger and many references to the Brontes with academic undertones. If you loved Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and enjoy modern romance this will be just the right kind of sweet read for you.
Profile Image for Pia.
236 reviews20 followers
April 4, 2016
I have to start this review saying I absolutely loved this book. Sometimes I surprise myself because I think I don't like books that can be tagged as women's fiction, romance or chick-lit, but deep down I love them. And if you add that there's books and a mystery involved, it's so much better, right?

When Samantha Whipple arrives at Oxford to study Literature, she tries to forget she's the last of the Brontë's. Yes, Brontë as in Charlotte, Anne and Emily.
Lonely and a bit awkward, she makes few friends but does develop a serious crush with her tutor, who also happens to be a Brontë scholar.

Rumor says she has inherited the Brontë estate, but as far as she knows, that is just not true. She has never seen any part of it. But then, as in a scavenger hunt, clues start arriving at her doorstep and all she can do is follow them to solve the mystery of the mythical Brontë legacy. But it is not just a hunt for the legacy, as in the meantime she starts discovering so much about her father and also about herself.

The only part that I didn't like so much is the fact that Samantha seems like a cliché: tall, awkward American. Or maybe I have just read a few books where the main character is similar to her? On the other part she is a lovely bright woman, so that makes it even. And the romance part is good!!!

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review
Profile Image for Sara the Librarian.
746 reviews323 followers
January 13, 2016
A fascinating, strangely eerie, but frankly empty modern retelling of "Jane Eyre" where Jane is the last heir of the Bronte's and may have Aspergers, Mr. Rochester has a bad habit of getting a little too friendly with his grad students and the madwoman in the attic is played by more than one character. Unfortunately for all its clever updating the key ingredient that makes "Jane Eyre" the gothic classic it remains to this day, passion, is sorely lacking and very much missed.

Samantha Whipple's father was brilliant, of that there is no doubt, but he was also troubled and hopelessly obsessed with the legacy of his family, the Bronte's, and the body of work they left behind. In Samantha he creates almost a clone of himself. She is brilliant and a dedicated (if reluctant) Bronte scholar. As the story begins she has entered Oxford to study with the strange and extremely irritating Professor Orville. Then someone begins leaving old copies of her father's Bronte books at her door and she begins to uncover clues to the inheritance left behind by her father. There's also her father's mistress to contend with and a Bronte scholar who's convinced she's hiding a secret treasure trove of Bronte relics.

I liked the atmosphere of this book. There's a frantic kind of energy under the gloomy darkness Samantha spends a lot of time skulking about in. There's something depressing about this version of Oxford. Lots of rules and snotty professors sniping about decorum. Unfortunately the same attention isn't really paid to Samantha and Orville.

Their tete a tetes at Samantha's tutoring sessions are quite a clever play on the bantering of Jane and Rochester though Jane's clear headed, forthrightness and Rochester's epic, romantic and rough melancholy are nowhere in evidence. Indeed Samantha comes off more like a savant with no social skills and Orville seems to find her merely irritating. To be frank I kind of kept waiting for Orville to suggest Samantha try therapy or perhaps a stay at a hospital They argue and argue and argue about what a novel is, whether fiction is really fiction or truth, who's interpretation of "The Tenant of Wyldfel Hall" is the right one, on and on and on, and I just ended up feeling sort of stupid for not having a clue what they were really talking about..

This seems to be trying to be a novel about the danger of passion, of mistaking unhealthy obsession for a life purpose. It's evident that when we are introduced to Samantha's father and his life long enemy we are supposed to recognize how easy it was for both men to lose their entire lives, the people they loved, their careers, to a quest with no ending and that Samantha is in danger of the same fate but the stakes just never feel that high for her. She doesn't seem to really learn anything through the story. Lowell has her rather abruptly come to the "right" conclusion just in time for a kind of incomprehensible happy ending though its never really clear why she's suddenly realized her father was wrong all the time or if we're even supposed to think that.

I liked this but it fell short of dazzling me. A promising beginning that never quite reaches its potential. But, it should be an enjoyable read for Bronte aficionado's and fans of quirky heroines with sharp tongues.
Profile Image for Charlie Lovett.
Author 28 books1,027 followers
March 14, 2017
This is tricky book for me to review, because, like my novels, it is about old books and secrets and English literature. Written by an American and set in England, it just has a lot in common with a Charlie Lovett novel, which makes it hard for me to get much distance on it. That said, there were parts I found delightful and charming and characters that flew off the page. I agree with Erika Robuck that the protagonist was a hot mess but, unlike Erika, I was not always charmed by this. Sometimes I just wanted to tell her to snap out of it (though even that shows that I cared about her). It may not have been quite what I expected or wanted (or the Brontë mystery I would have written) but none of those things keep it from being a good read. I'll be interested to hear what some of my readers think of this novel—I suspect they will like it very much.
Profile Image for Amal Bedhyefi.
196 reviews634 followers
June 17, 2018
Fast paced , fun , witty and engaging are what describe this book the best .
I absolutely loved every page of this book solely because it was the perfect mix of my interests : England, Oxford, the Bronte sisters, books and academic discussions .
However ,James and samantha's relationship was poorly developed and uncalled for .They didn't even have a proper civil conversation , he showed no interest whatsoever during the whole book and then he's suddenly in love ? did i miss something ? I don't know how you felt about it but I literally cringed at the end.
ORRRR , is it fiction ? I mean is she imagining it like she told him ? do you remember that part ( if you read it of course )? " I hope you know that you've left me no other choice but to become a writer" ?
Anyway , if you're looking for a book about books , academics , sarcasm & kind of a treasure hunt , I highly recommend this one :)
Profile Image for Figgy.
678 reviews219 followers
February 18, 2017
Lowell offers a story that delves into classic literature without leaving the reader behind. She gives us enough information to help us understand the underlying messages in the classics Samantha studies, without feeling like we’re drowning under so much regurgitated literature, even if we’re not well versed with the titles.

In fact, a reader who hasn’t read these classics will find themselves inclined to do so. Soon. And a reader who has read some will no doubt find something to add to their to read list, or will be called back into those they’ve already read with a new way to interpret the text.

The funny and absurd moments in this story serve as a counterweight to the grief and uncertainty that Samantha is feeling as she tries to make her way through a degree while being gawked at as the last living Bronte descendant and tries to work out what her father left her, if anything.

The rest of this review can be found HERE!
Profile Image for Heather Webb.
Author 13 books980 followers
July 18, 2016
Brilliant! This novel oozed with sarcasm, witty repartee, and a meaty analysis of the Brontes' famed works that had me zipping through it in just a few days. You also get a dash of love story and a touching father-daughter story, all set at Oxford. In short, I loved it. Recommending to every book-loving friend I know!
Profile Image for Fictionophile .
1,027 reviews331 followers
April 5, 2018
The classic novels written by the Brontë sisters have long been among my favorites. For this reason I was curious to read "The madwoman upstairs".

Set in the city of "dreaming spires", a place I have always wanted to visit, this novel is set in and around Oxford University's 'Old College'.

The protagonist is twenty-year-old Samantha J. Whipple, an intensely intelligent young American woman who has just started her studies at Oxford.

"This is what I was learning about Old College: it was miserable and perfect."

Samantha is given a tower room in the oldest part of the college. With a musty air, peeling paint, and no windows, she feels even more isolated than normal. Her only company comes in the form of a large painted portrait titled "The Governess".

"An imagination left alone in the dark can be a terrible thing."

Samantha has been home-schooled for most of her life, so she has fewer social skills that she would like. Grieving for her father, who died in a fire at their home, Samantha looks to literature to help her find her way. By turns overly serious, then flippantly witty, Samantha garners the attention of her tutor, Professor James Orville.  When she first enters Orville's office she tells the reader "It was the sort of library you'd marry a man for."

Samantha and Professor Orville have differing views of literature. He thinks that good non-fiction is, in fact, fiction. She thinks that all good fiction is actually nonfiction.  Together they spend countless hours decimating and analyzing the great works of classic literature.

One stormy winter day, Samantha travels north to the Brontë parsonage in Yorkshire. Her experiences there mark a turning point in her life.

This is a steady-paced debut novel that will be cherished by bibliophiles who don't become bored by endless book discussion. Though a modern story, it contains a hint of the gothic, and a hint of mystery. It is more love story than I first thought it would be. I realize this is not a book that will be to everyone's tastes - but for me it worked. The author captured the essence of a Brontë novel. A mysterious inheritance, a handsome and brooding male, a solitary heroine, and of course... family secrets.

In summation, I love it when a book transports me to another place, a place seeping with history and atmosphere. I appreciated the sarcastic wit peppered through the narrative. I liked that it "Talked nerdy to me". A plethora of bookish quotes and Brontë references liberally scattered throughout the text ensured my reading enjoyment. ♥

I received a digital copy of this novel, free at my request, from Touchstone via Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Éowyn.
339 reviews4 followers
January 17, 2016
I thought this sounded a really interesting idea, modern day woman, descended from the Bronte family uncovers secrets from the history of her family. While I didn't dislike it, I didn't really love it either. For about the first half of the book I found it a bit of a struggle as I found the protagonist, Samantha Whipple, rather hard to like. I'm not even sure I liked her that much by the end of the book to be honest.

Samantha has had rather an odd upbringing, which would account for some of her strangeness. We see her early on arriving at a fictional Oxford college to study English Literature although she seems to hate practically all writers and seems incapable of constructing a reasonable critical argument! She is rather like a spoilt child, and as such I found her hard to like. I'm also pretty good at suspending my disbelief but it takes some stretch of the imagination to accept that someone like Samantha would have been able to gain a place on an English Literature course at an Oxford college! Or that she would be housed on the fifth floor of a tower with no windows in her room and apparently there is only a bathroom on the ground floor. Must have been a bit of an issue when she sprained her ankle, but this is glossed over.

Samantha's tutor is a young, handsome (naturally!) Englishman with the unlikely name of Dr James Timothy Orville III. For most of the book he is referred to simply as 'Orville'. If you are of my generation you might understand why this seemed a bit off-putting and why I've had 'I Wish I Could Fly....' in my head for the past few days!

In conclusion, it wasn't a bad book, the writing was OK (a few Americanisms slipping into the mouths of supposedly British characters....) but it just didn't work for me - there were too many things that were rather improbable and the protagonist was, at times, idiotic.
Profile Image for Moonkiszt.
2,043 reviews212 followers
August 9, 2019
Brontes! Brontes! This book was about the last surviving descendent of that complicated group of humans we call the Brontes. . . .

I liked the book, but I really didn't like the protagonist for a long time. She was whiny, self-important, overdramatic, and for someone who got into Oxford, incredible self-absorbed and gullible (?a weird combo?). She'd had tutors, and lots of attention. Anyway. . . my poor old Kindle processed the book slowly and it was easy to keep stopping. Until Mr. Orville showed up. I perked up and plot projected forward right to the end - predicted it and felt rather smug at the end.

By book's end, I felt almost affectionate toward the protagonist. I'd welcomed every mention of a Bronte book and author, and enjoyed the author's consideration of each Bronte and their related works (or non-works, in brother's case) and how the facts of family and writing life may have intertwined and influenced the books and the people. I liked the realization expressed by one of the characters that the Brontes' books developed their own "essence" separate and apart from the humans from whose imagination and effort they sprang. I love that idea. Books are not mere extensions, or representations, or even some kind of reflection of the author. . . .but rather is an independent concern, standing on its own two feet, or spread open covers with enticing pages beckoning me in. . . .

So 3 stars - hard start, but a satisfying finish. I looked for more from this author but haven't found any further works.
Profile Image for Riley.
378 reviews2 followers
May 20, 2016
OHMYGOD. Sure, arrogance can be perceived in these pages if it's looked for. Not the first time this criticism has been lobbed at academia. And yes, Lowell rambles a bit. Whatever. I LOVED this book. My English classes were my favorite part of school, because there's nothing like discovering a new lens through which to view something you've seen a thousand times. This book captured everything I love about an academic discussion and threw it together with one of my favorite literary families, some mystery, a bit of self-discovery, and just enough romantic tension to make me burst into tears when I read the last few pages. I also agree with Lowell's idea that sometimes the beauty of the thing is in the thing itself, and one runs the risk of destroying the beauty entirely when trying to deconstruct it. I devoured it in a day, and may have read it twice by tomorrow. No shame.
Profile Image for Sophie.
1,456 reviews3 followers
May 2, 2016
Originally published at http://solittletimeforbooks.blogspot....

I’m just going to come out and say it: The Madwoman Upstairs is my favourite book of 2016 so far. I loved every single word of it.

My love of classics has increased significantly over the years, and after reading Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre last year and then Agnes Grey in January, so has my love for the Brontës. I jumped at the chance to take part in the blog tour for this book and I'm so, so glad I did. I went in not knowing very much, only that it was a literary mystery with lots of Brontë influence, and I came out with a whole lot more than I expected.

Within the first couple of chapters, The Madwoman Upstairs declares itself as a fiercely clever book. Samantha is just beginning an English Literature degree at Oxford and she embarks on a series of tutorials with the harsh and rather mysterious James Timothy Orville III. The discussions they have about literature, authorial intent and literary theory are intense and battering. They made me think. And even though my university experience was nothing like the very strange and extreme Oxford experience, it still made me all nostalgic for my lectures and seminars about some of the same texts that Samantha studied.

The mystery of the secret Brontë legacy, and what her dad could have been hiding, is the driving force of the novel, but it didn’t play out at all how I expected it to. To complete the treasure hunt for her inheritance set by her dad, Samantha had to explore the Brontës’ most famous novels in a way she never had before. I love how she discovered that the novels and the lives of the sisters’ themselves reflected her life and that of her dad’s rather eerily, the things she uncovered about how she approaches literature, the fine line between passion and obsession and the way literary theory can reveal both everything and nothing about a book and it's author. I learned so much from reading this novel (I used so.many.tabs.) and it’s made me eager to finish off the Brontë novels – I’m thinking The Tenant of Wildfell Hall first. I really do love Anne, and I’m not too keen on Charlotte.

Alongside all of Samantha’s investigating, she was also becoming a little enamoured of her tutor, Orville. I actually found him really grating at first, but I eventually fell under his spell as well. There’s just something so appealing about a man who knows his books! Their relationship wasn’t always a relationship and I loved that. It felt genuine and higgledy-piggledy and I was never able to predict the outcome for them. The epilogue sorted everything beautifully though and I loved how Lowell worked in some Brontë quotes – it made me very happy when I finished devouring half of the book at 2am!

The Madwoman Upstairs is a gorgeous exploration of loss, loneliness, love and the inimitable power of literature. I already want to devour it all over again.
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