The Family Upstairs Review

This is another book that I read for book club. See below on my bookclub notes. Have a great day!

Customary warning: This is a reminder that these are my personal opinions. My thoughts and feelings are not your thoughts and feelings. I may not always be the target  audience for a book; sometimes I am. If I do not like a book, that doesn’t mean you’ll dislike it. If I love a book or simply like a book, you may hate it. Take everything I say with this knowledge. If it sounds interesting to you despite what I’ve said, then go ahead and read it. You’ll only know you like something if you read it yourself.

That being said… Spoilers ahead.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Synopsis From The Book

Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

Horror – Mystery | A – PW |Murder, Cults, Non-consensual relations (due to age gap and cult beliefs) |Obsession, Cult Indoctrination, Family, Running from the Past

Initial Thoughts Before Reading:

Hello, book club book. I have been waiting for you. My mother read this almost a month ago, and now I need to read it. Its my first book into the new year, so here is to hoping that it is a great book! I have high hopes for it, so I’m not too worried. Its a relatively short book with an interesting premise. Best of luck to me!

Initial Thoughts After Reading:

What the eff? Holy! Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Wow. um… well that was a story. Holy crud. This is a lot to unpack and I think I may have to figure out a way to better state my thoughts after some thought.

Later: Yeah, so that was a lot and I’m not sure I have fully processed it either. I will, most certainly, adjust this review based on my conversations with the book club. I need to know how to articulate my thoughts.

Plot Overview:

This story is told in three parts, that come together.

Libby, gets a letter from the inheritance people when she turns twenty-five that has details that she has recently gotten a house. Her parents died when she was young and she inherited it because the rest of her family never claimed it. At the house she sees what was left for her, and resolves to sell it but before she can, she wants to learn the truth of what happened to her family (see below). She ends up getting in contact with a reporter, to investigate more and runs into her brother Henry who calls himself Phin. He tells her the true story of what happened, then locks Libby and the reporter into a room and pretends he didn’t. She then goes and finds the others who lived in the house, specifically Clemency. Clemency tells her much of what happened in a different way. Then the stories collide.

Lucy, She is a mother of two living in France on the streets. She played violin for a living and after her violin broke she had nothing. She gets help from her old abusive husband, and gets her violin back. After seeing that “the baby” turned twenty, she knows she needs to go back to the UK. She gets her old abusive ex to help her get passports, but in that he ends up raping her and she ends up killing him. She flees the country with her children in the dead of night. They get to the UK and to the house, where they meet Henry. Then he reveals that he knows where and what Libby is doing and calls her to meet them.

Henry, His story is told as a detail of events from the past to the future. Henry’s family was rich, but then they started to lose their money. A woman named Birdie came to stay with them for a little, and to record a music video. She never left. Then her partner Justin came to live with them. Then Henry’s father, also named Henry, had a stroke. Birdie got a friend of her’s to come and help. The man, David, moved in with his family. Henry has a little sister named Lucy. David has two children named Phin and Clemency as well as his wife. Their dynamic starts off odd, and David is seen as odd to Henry. Henry also starts to love Phin. By thirteen, their family is living in a near cult state and Henry sees David and Birdie kissing. After a bad acid trip, Phin reveals this truth and Sally, David’s wife, leaves. Justin leaves shortly after things get much, much worse. Birdie and David, start to run the house like a cult with many rules on locked doors and leaving. They lose their earthly possessions, and then their clothes, and their shoes. They can never leave. Phin and Henry go for another acid trip a few years later and Henry (or Phin) almost dies. By this point, Justin is gone. Henry’s mother gets pregnant by David, and Henry makes sure the baby isn’t born with drugs. His mother has a miscarriage at five months. Then Lucy is named pregnant, and Henry believes it by David (it’s actually Phin’s). Henry drugs David and Birdie to steal his father’s will, realizing it is what Henry wants. He and Clemency plan an escape. Phin, who is getting constantly weaker and sicker, can’t do much. Lucy has her baby. One night Henry drugs the parents again but he messed up and they died. Birdie freaks out and attacks them and Henry kills her with an elephant tusk. Clemency runs away. Henry and Lucy make a plan, but in the dead of the night one night, Lucy and Phin disappear leaving Henry with the baby. Henry takes care of the baby for as long as he can, until neighbors call in on the house and he flees.

Finality; Lucy reveals to Libby that she did want to go back, but she needed to get Phin to a doctor. Henry reveals that he released Phin and fell asleep and thought they had abandoned him. Lucy and Phin went to France and never looked back, then Phin disappeared from her life. Lucy got married and had her first kid. Time passes, the family comes together. They sell the house. Libby’s reporter friend finds Phin, who is calling himself Finn. They decide to go visit him.

And at the end is a very demented version of Henry speaking of the night he released Phin, and how he kissed Phin without Phin’s consent (mind you there are many times throughout this book that make it clear that Henry is a very unreliable narrator). And that Henry did everything in his power to become Phin (looking like him taking his name, etc.), and I don’t want to think about what he will do to the real Phin. He also used a “love potion” on Phin, so yeah there is that

What I Liked:

Lucy; This single mother of two kicks ass. She plays the violin for a living. Struggles to make her way after her traumatic past (and abusive relationships) but she does so well despite it. We first meet her, homeless, but she does what she must for her children and family. She even murders a man and gets away with it. I love her, and her kids, and hope that she is happy forever.

Libby; She wasn’t the most amazing of main characters but I feel that’s because we didn’t get as much of her as we did Henry or Lucy. However as a standard character who existed in the world to exist, I did appreciate her and her story.

1st vs 3rd perspective; I liked seeing the shift between the two. The first person made everything so much more intense. It was even second at time, talking to Libby rather than the audience, but the intensity never faded. In the third person, it seemed like an outsider looking in, and I liked the dichotomy.

Mystery; The mystery of what happened was different than I expected, and that isn’t to say it was bad, it was just interesting to watch unfold and in many ways. However this wasn’t the focal point of the story, not really.

The Family History; Now this was the focal point of the story, and my oh my did we go heavy in detail with it. I liked watching the family become indoctrinated, because it was fascinating to watch how easy it was. I’m sorry for what happened to them, and how it destroyed them but it was an interesting take on cult behavior in general.

Unreliable Narrators; Each character has their own version of things, and Henry is the most unreliable of all. In general, I liked watching this, because I like reading unreliable characters. It makes you question everything (which, ultimately, is what happened to me with this book). Unreliable narrators are a fundamental truth of life, and this book used them well.

What I Would Have Liked or Changed:

Henry; He was the scariest and most visceral of all the characters in the novel. How he was able to be so… alluring and scary all at one was amazing. He was also a super unreliable narrator, having to change his story in regards to events often enough. He was not someone I ever could trust, because his obsession was over powering in so many ways. Originally I would have had him in likes but there were things I could not forgive. I could not forgive that he was given his mental health coding, in the “we need the shock value so lets add this” sort of way.

Him obsessing over Phin could have been justified as a child searching and latching on to a stable person in a unstable household. We could have seen him obsessing and thinking it was love and learning otherwise. He could have kept up with any of the unhealthy things he learned while in that family dynamic. He also could have been mentally destroyed by his ordeal. He could have been exactly what he was, as truly disturbed and in need of help, however the way it was written was my issue. His mental health, like Lucy’s and Phins and Clemency’s could have been on a wide spectrum. Instead his mental health came across to me as a twist, which is what it felt like to me. A sort of psychosis with a twist. It was a twist in the plot to keep the readers on their toes. It was less about the mental health, and more of something to add to the plot, simply for the shock value of it. Thus it felt like the one gay character in the book, was made to be “crazy” for no other reason than shock and I don’t like that.

Book Club Talk:

We all agreed that Henry didn’t have to be “crazy”. Surprise. We also talked about how Clemency didn’t have much of a character and Lucy’s murdering her husband plot line didn’t need to be there.

Most of our talk was about those big things, and most Henry. Henry got us the most worked up.

Also, we all thought it was going to be creepier and more odd. Also the name Family Upstairs is sort of misleading, since the family took over the whole house. I’m happy I wasn’t the only one who thought the book was going to go another direction.

Rating: 4/5

Notable Quotes:

” ‘All books are good,’ he said.
‘That’s not true,’ I said. ‘I’ve read some really bad books.’
‘They weren’t bad books,’ Phin countered patiently. ‘They were books that you didn’t enjoy. It’s not the same thing at all. The only bad books are books that are so badly written that no one with publish them. Any book that has been published is going to be a ‘good book’ for someone.'” – pg 93

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3 thoughts on “The Family Upstairs Review

  1. I gave the book the same rating that you did; 4/5 stars. One thing I wanted to say was, well, gay people are people, so they can be crazy. Gay people don’t just exist to add diversity to a book. They are real human beings. I’m just very thrown off by the whole ‘why is he gay AND crazy?’ comments. As if only straight people have mental health problems. Being gay doesn’t HAVE to add to the plot. Being gay is just something he is.
    I’m a kid of a gay person. My mom is a lesbian, married to a woman. She also has a ton of mental health problems. People aren’t automatically saints and perfect just because they belong to a marginalized group. I think you need to re-examine your views here. Your tokenizing gay people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this. Thanks to you, I can see that the way I wrote that section was extremely problematic and 100% something I needed to edit. I also realized that I did not articulate myself properly and came across exactly as you described. What I meant to say, and how I hope I have edited it to say better now, was that I read Henry’s coding as less of a mental health reading, and more of a “lets shock the audience” reading. I found that, to me, it was less about him and more about surprising me, the reader. And I did not like that. So thank you, once again. I will do better in the future!


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