First published in 1989, The Woman Upstairs written by Mary W.Walters is a timeless tale of a family's descent into dysfunction and estrangement. A young woman, Diana Guthrie, has been told that her estranged mother is dying. Neither her mother nor her brother has told her this, but a friend of the family has taken it upon himself to tell her, believing that it is the right thing to do. Diana makes the arduous drive from Edmonton, Alberta to well-heeled Donellon, Ontario, with no clear idea of why she is going to where she is not wanted, and not knowing what she will do when she gets there.
Diana's mother's family, the Leavenworths, had long been the pre-eminent family in Donellon society, and her mother and grandmother never let her forget that. Her haughty, disdainful grandmother despised Diana's father, whose parents were from the United States, sneering at him and his textile factory in Donellon as being low-class and generally treating him despicably.
Grandmother despised the Guthrie Textile Factory for its ugliness, its base origins and considered it to be a blight on the landscape. She was frank in her opinion that her daughter married far beneath herself.
Despite Grandmother's disdain of her husband, Diana's own mother insisted that Grandmother live with them, against her husband's earnest wishes. Grandmother is not simply hateful to Diana's father. She also open in her intense dislike of Diana, the child of six years of age who did not fit into the Leavenworth mold. From the moment her grandmother moves in with them, the Guthrie marriage begins to deteriorate, and Diana's childhood becomes an endless cycle of guilt and recrimination.
All through her school years, Diana is both admired and despised for her connection to the Guthrie Textiles, as her father is the largest employer in Donellon. Her own grandmother's vocal disdain was perhaps a part of that, giving the local aristocracy permission to feel somehow more upper-class than someone whose wealth is both new and foreign. She has few close friends and is awkward and unsure of herself as she traverses the high school years.
There are many open wounds in Diana's relationship with her mother, and the news that her mother is dying sends Diana into an emotional tailspin, which she desperately tries to keep contained under the smooth veneer that, if she only knew it, is the mark of the women in her family.
Her younger brother, Mitchell, still lives with their mother, and is possessed of an extremely warped view of the situation. He is angry and resentful of Diana, telling her frankly that she is not welcome there. He arrogantly orders her to stay away from their mother. Indeed, Diana does hesitate to go upstairs to her mother’s room, but that is for reasons of her own.
The story of what lies between Diana and her mother unfolds over the space of several days, during which she lurks downstairs, unwilling to go upstairs to her dying mother, and unable to leave. Other relationships which had been poisoned as a by-product of the Guthrie family situation come to light and are examined for the first time in years.
As a young child, her relationship with her mother was destroyed by her grandmother, whose hateful actions go unpunished, while Diana's punishments for natural childish behaviors are never-ending.
Guilt, abandonment and death form the watershed moments in Diana's childhood. Her father breaks under the extreme pressure of living with his mother-in-law, and abandons his family, which cuts the young Diana deeply.
The suicide of Noel, the boy she loved, drives her to leave Donellon under a cloud of hate and suspicion. Many people blame Diana for his death. The story of what really happened, and what lies between three generations of women in one family is compelling and impossible to put down.
The characters are clearly drawn and environment in which they live is rich and vivid. I highly recommend this classic book, as either an e-book or as a paperback.
Other books by Mary W. Walters include several technical books and novels, including The Whole Clove Diet, a novel that was just published in March of 2012, and is soon to be available as a Kindle download.
I guarantee that I will be buying that book!