Photographed this morning in the Blue House garden.
Proof that spring is coming, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.
As I mentioned in a recent post, I’ve been surviving the last licks of winter by immersing myself in books. One of them was Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs (Touchstone Books). Here’s a brief synopsis:
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. But Samantha has never seen this rumored estate, and as far as she knows, it doesn’t exist. 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 deceased 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.
The description of this book alone was catnip to this Brontë obsessed reader. I eagerly awaited its arrival, and tore through it in several hours. (Many thanks to the lovely people at Touchstone Books for providing me with a copy of this novel.)
My one sentence take: The Madwoman Upstairs is a charming Brontë-fueled romp of a novel. That said, it was lighter of tone than I’d expected because of the dramatic title—I was anticipating dark and stormy psychological depths, not a frothy coming-of-age caper. Don’t get me wrong. Frothy coming-of-age capers are wonderful, but it was as if I’d set my mouth for mushroom risotto and ended up with champagne sorbet. In retrospect, I probably should have been tipped off by the whimsical cover illustration. So, my bad!
Once I adjusted my palette, I had a ball picking up all the gothic tropes planted throughout: from the Rochester-inspired Oxford professor whom Samantha addresses as “sir,” to the Victorian-era governess portrait adorning her tower room. There’s even a sinister blast-from-the-past named Rebecca who drowns (or does she?) in a boating accident. Lowell has a real gift for the clever one-liner, and imbues her characters with wit and eccentricity. This is her first novel, and it’s a very accomplished debut.
Yet, as I read, I often felt the true heart of The Madwoman Upstairs laid in Samantha’s literary critique of the Brontë family and their legacy, rather than in the scavenger hunt plot. These sections were truly involving, and hint at the possibility of a deeper novel more akin to Possession than The Rossetti Letter. Samantha’s recasting of Anne Brontë, the Lady Edith of the Brontës, as a behind the scenes inspiration to her siblings was convincing enough to have me scurrying for my reference books. For this new perspective alone, I am so glad to have read The Madwoman Upstairs.
“When you’re older, you’ll inherit the Warnings of Experience,” he said.
“The Warnings of Experience?” I clarified.
“Why when I’m older?”
I should have asked him, Why the Warnings of Experience? but when you’re young, you never think to question the absurd.
—excerpted from The Madwoman Upstairs
Photographed at Greenwood Cemetery using a tintype app. It seemed appropriately Victorian for this post.
I totally forgot that yesterday was the first Sunday of March—which meant I should have posted my Snippet Sunday excerpt. (What’s Snippet Sunday? new visitors to this site might be wondering. It’s a monthly meme in which authors post six sentence snippets from their novels. Read my previous snippets here.)
Anyway, this month’s Snippet Sunday is going out on Monday instead. March’s snippet is from the Next Novel, which I also featured last month. The Next Novel is set in 1852 England and 1837 France; this post offers more details about it.
She wrung her hands, occasionally parting them to pull at her fingers. Even in the low light, the tendons and veins of her hands looked especially prominent. Musician’s hands. If Robert was to leave Weald House at that moment, he’d have no knowledge of Isabelle’s appearance beyond those twisting, bony hands.
“I understand this is a shock. I hope it will be some consolation that your uncle cared to make you his heir,” he said gently.
Photographed this morning at my favorite cafe. And it’s a fabulous read!
These days at Chez Art and Words, I’ve been deep into books more so than usual. Both the writing of them:
Exhibit A: Spreadsheets for the Next Novel and the Sekret Project book. Yes, I am that geeky.
And the reading of them:
Exhibit B: Just a few of the books gracing my shelves these days.
Total book immersion is a great way to survive the last licks of winter—in Brooklyn, spring can seem especially slow to arrive. Luckily, there’s no shortage of reading material here. I’ve books to read for research, as well as books to read for review. (More about those below.) Another spur to my increased book consumption: Thea and I have started a mother-daughter book club.
Here’s how the Mom-Daughter Book Club usually works: Thea recommends a book she loves. (Usually the book pick is thrust at me as soon as she finishes it. “Mom, you’ve gotta read this now.”) I read. We discuss. Sometimes it’s the opposite: I pre-read a book, if I’m concerned about content, before passing it Thea’s way.
We’ve read some great books together this way: Rebecca Stead‘s When You Reach Me (okay, the ending made me cry—it’s basically a middle grade version of The Time Traveler’s Wife). The Hunger Games trilogy (so much to discuss! Dystopias and totalitarian governments. Greek mythology. The sharply drawn characters!). Other books … well, let’s just say I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Maze Runner, much as Thea loved it. But that’s okay. We can still talk about what worked for us as readers, and what didn’t. The Mom-Daughter Book Club leads to hours of great conversation, and is far less emotionally fraught than talking about, say, middle school applications and room cleaning.
Recent additions to the mom-daughter book club I enjoyed: Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick, which has a charming Charlotte’s Web-inspired subplot and a compelling exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder. Jerry Spinelli’s Eggs, which has one of the best book covers I’ve ever seen. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. Besides being absurdly well written, Green’s novels spurred lots of deep philosophical discussion as well as laughter—he’s a master of dialogue. His novels also offer an entry point to discuss teen sexuality and other Uncomfortable Issues Usually Avoided. (Remember, DFTBA.)
On the review front, I’ve received ARCS for some especially delectable books. (Many thanks to Touchstone Books and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing me with review copies.) In the coming week, I’m delighted to be offering the inside skinny on Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince by Lisa Hilton, a new biography of Elizabeth Tudor that explores how she used gender expectations to advance her reign. Also on tap: Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs, a fun Bronte-fueled romp of a novel, and The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life by BookSlut.com’s Jessa Crispin.
More about these books soon. In the meantime, here’s a The New Yorker interview with Jessa Crispin about the co-mingling of tarot and literature. Enjoy!