In the novel The Upstairs House by Julia Fine, Megan has given birth to her first child Clara and is home alone while her husband travels for work. She has also taken a break from completing her dissertation on children’s literature and education. This could be a typical middle-class maternity leave, except for one key point: Megan’s condo is haunted by children’s author Margaret Wise Brown and her lover Michael Strange.
While Megan struggles with breastfeeding, bonding with her daughter, isolation, and the physical effects of childbirth, Margaret, with her turquoise door in a place where no door should be, is a relatively steady and constant presence. Megan visits Margaret, but Margaret has appeared to help Michael, who needs to be remembered and who has chosen baby Clara to give her new life.
Chapters alternate between present-day Chicago with Megan and 1940s New York detailing Margaret and Michael’s relationship. Sections of Megan’s dissertation are interspersed throughout as she attempts to write Michael into her research.
Both a metaphor for postpartum depression and a realistic accounting of the early days and nights of motherhood, The Upstairs House is also a haunting ghost story. Lights flicker, glass is broken, and gas burners are turned on. No one believes her, and everyone is worried, but Megan is alone with Clara and Michael. Megan’s chapters are told from her point of view, leading me to trust her description even as I recognized her obvious signs of depression. The haunting and Megan’s illness come to a head when Clara is six weeks old. Megan has felt distant from Clara, despite being physically attached most of the day, but also does not want to lose her child.
There is a resolution, but is anyone really okay at the end? I first read this novel during my third maternity leave, and rereading it recently, I interpreted much of it differently, although I was still worried for Megan. I can also now never read Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon without a slight sense of foreboding.