In Julia Fine’s second novel, “The Upstairs House,” Megan Weiler isn’t connecting with her newborn, Clara. Although her husband, Ben, easily cradles their daughter, Megan “looked at Clara, a puffy little larva, mouth pulsing, and [she] waited for the bond.” She tries to figure out when her maternal uncertainty began; asking over and over if a particular moment was the cause: “And maybe that was the beginning — the noises from upstairs, the first crack in Ben, my laughter.” Megan thinks that if she can get back to some foundational moment, maybe she can reason away her unease and then embrace a life and mothering experience more in line with the one she reads about in her baby books.
Megan’s quest to understand the origins of her discomfort (which also includes ambivalence about writing her dissertation and an overall discomfort with her role as a young Jewish woman in a patriarchal society) quickly expands beyond a simple project. Instead, Megan’s symbolically resonant search for a “beginning” is also a creative, imaginative journey to claim her own story. In this gripping and stylistically impressive novel, Fine illustrates how the rational and the mythic, the tangible and intangible, intertwine to fully tell a woman’s story.
As a follow-up to Fine’s first novel, “What Should Be Wild,” a feminist fairy tale, “The Upstairs House” gives readers another gynocentric narrative with otherworldly elements. Megan’s story of a wrenching postpartum experience is combined with other interspersed pieces, such as fragments from Megan’s abandoned dissertation, which includes children’s author Margaret Wise Brown, as well as separate chapters on Brown’s own troubled relationship 70 years prior to the book’s current action. The focus allows women to drive the narrative, telling stories about postpartum difficulties and about women artists and thinkers like Brown (famous most especially for “Goodnight, Moon”).
The abrupt movement among these sections also underlines the instability of their realities. In the book’s most unsettling shift, Megan discovers that somehow Margaret Wise Brown (who is long dead) has moved in upstairs. Although this ghostly figure — whom she calls by first name, intimately — is fully present to Megan, no one else notices Margaret’s existence, leaving Megan to question her reality and her motherly judgment: “I hadn’t asked if Margaret knew CPR. I hadn’t checked her references. I hadn’t made sure she was real.” In attempting to discover how Margaret is living behind a door that appeared from nowhere, Megan is also trying to grasp the strange reality of motherhood where a brand-new person exists where before there was none.
Margaret does not remain the hidden “madwoman in the attic,” to borrow a literary trope; nor does Megan remain the proper “Angel in the House,” to borrow a Victorian term. Instead, Megan and Margaret’s worlds become blurred both emotionally and spatially as Margaret and her partner, the actress Michael Strange, infiltrate Megan’s life. Megan’s husband stays mostly outside the story, traveling for work or generally unaware. Megan must deal with the real and imagined threats around her without much support.
This blurring of reality progresses; at times Megan seems to slip into the pages of Margaret’s books. Megan describes Margaret’s newly conceived home as looking incredibly similar to the famous large bedroom in “Goodnight Moon,” down to the brass elements around the fireplace and the blue clock on the mantel. The historical and the literary blend. “Goodnight Moon” functions as a mirroring — a mise en abyme — that creates stories within stories that start to make unclear which is the original and which is the copy.
Fine’s stylistic movements reveal the interiority of her main character, but they also mirror Margaret Wise Brown’s meta-fictional references in her children’s books. In “Runaway Bunny,” a mother and child rabbit share escalating stories with each other about their need for a bond and for a sense of freedom in their relationship. One of those illustrated internal stories — the mother fishing for her child who has tried to escape by becoming a fish — then appears as a piece of art in the room in “Goodnight Moon.” The world of these books is thus connected, but in a way that is already twisted, combining art and reality (in the story world). Similarly, “The Upstairs House” is constantly aware of sliding between reality and fiction, between the historical and the strange, and how that in-between movement can be both productive and destructive.
Near the start of the novel, Megan believes her daughter can see a balloon outside their hospital room, even though doctors say that newborns don’t possess such vision. “The beginning of your life as a woman,” Megan says to her daughter. “Being told you couldn’t have seen what you’re sure that you saw.” This sentiment lays bare some of the constraints on women, who are too often overlooked, questioned, and uncared for. Even the more privileged characters in “The Upstairs House” feel these constraints, but their stories show that they are also creative, intelligent, and complicated. With style and imagination, Fine renders the world of women more believably than the writing in many strictly realistic novels. While eventually there are some direct solutions in this book, much remains unsettled, which feels accurate, frightening, and a bit magical. All of which seems like a reasonable beginning.
THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE
By Julia Fine
Harper, 304 pp., $26.99
Abby Manzella’s “Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements” was awarded the honorable mention for the MLA Book Prize for Independent Scholars.