Book Review: The Party Upstairs by Lee Conell

The Party Upstairs – Lee Conell (Penguin Press, 2020)

I received and Advance Readers’ Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Ruby has just moved back in with her parents. Twentysomething, recently lost her job, her relationship ended, she’s back home with mom and dad. Home is in the heart of New York City, a posh neighbourhood blocks from the Natural History Museum. Ruby has grown up in the same apartment building where her dad has been the super for twenty-five years. What was once a decent apartment complex has steadily turned into an upscale place to live, a place where Ruby and her working class family don’t fit in. Martin’s job as super includes the apartment in the basement; his job is demanding and almost never-ending. Ruby and Martin don’t get along, diverging drastically in the ways they see the world.

The plot of The Party Upstairs takes place in a single day, beginning with Ruby and Martin attempting to meditate together. Martin is the one who has taken up meditation in an attempt to better his health and relax more. Ruby has a promising job interview at the Natural History Museum, her dream job. The interview comes courtesy of Ruby’s oldest friend, Caroline. Caroline and Ruby grew up together; Caroline’s family owns the building’s penthouse and the girls have played together since they were little girls. Caroline has always had nicer dolls, better clothes, more opportunity. While both Ruby and Caroline are interested in art and pursue university degrees in the arts, Caroline is finding success in sculpture while Ruby flounders. As we learn more about each young woman, we see the ways that what looks like equality (their equal education) doesn’t quite work that way. Caroline can afford to focus on her art when it does pay her bills because of her wealthy parents. Ruby works minimum wage in order to sustain herself and when her job closes down, she would be homeless without her parents.

There is also the power differential of the building superintendent and the building’s occupants. Martin is keenly aware of this. He thinks of the occupants mainly by their door numbers, 2C or 5D. He knows that the other people who live in the building are only dimly aware of him, that he comes into view only when they need something of him. If he isn’t properly polite and helpful, they can complain. Too many complaints and he loses his job. If he loses his job, he also loses his home. He worries about Ruby and where her place in life might be.

None of these are new subjects but they are consistently interesting ones to explore. Post-secondary education has changed the landscape for many young people, launching them into spheres that their parents could never have imagined at their age. But it is still not the great equalizer some make it out to be and The Party Upstairs explores this idea, particularly in the arts and the concept of unpaid internships.

This is a debut novel and I think it shows in a few ways, primarily that the story itself doesn’t quite have enough depth to lend itself to a full-length novel. The setting of a single day is interesting but the day feels both too long and too crowded. There are chunks where not much happens though while looking at the story overall it’s hard to imagine that so much could be fit into approximately 12 to 18 hours. At the same time, Ruby is not a particularly interesting character. She’s made a series of poor choices, is actually pretty lazy, and seems to blame others for her problems, especially her father. No, she doesn’t have the privilege that Caroline does but very few of us do and at no point does Ruby acknowledge the fortune that she does have or the opportunities that have been afforded to her. Martin could be more interesting, having a far more diverse background that is hinted at, but we mostly see him meditating and thinking about birds and worrying about the building’s occupants and his job.

In the end, The Party Upstairs is an interesting first novel and I would read look for Conell’s work in the future, hoping for a little more polish.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Party Upstairs by Lee Conell”

  1. The cover of this book made me think of a play I read when I was still working at the civic theater. It was about this family that converges on a holiday, and the whole thing takes place in a two story doll-house-like set. You can see the siblings arguing upstairs, the parents talking about them downstairs, etc. Base on the title and cover of this book, I thought there would be more emphasis on the importance of people existing on different floors of a house. I think I read somewhere that that more a family can space out in a home, the less connected they tend to be.

    1. I can see that! It has that cut-away look of a play stage. The story doesn’t give a lot of space to the difference between living on the various floors though it’s alluded to. The main characters literally live underground in the basement while Ruby’s closest friend lives in the penthouse so it’s a pretty substantial difference. That’s interesting about families spacing out. Stuff like that encourages me because we live in a relatively small house and I often wonder what it will be like if we stay in our house for the next few years as our kids get older.

    2. With kids getting older and staying close together, I would think it would encourage them to problem solve and say “I’m sorry,” because there’s bound to be conflict. It’s also a great time for the parents to encourage the kids to get along. I know it’s often assumed that siblings are going to fight all the time, but I feel like that is said by parents who aren’t willing or don’t know how to help siblings resolve conflicts.

    3. Our girls share a room and will for as long as we live in this house. And when I hear them whispering to each other and telling stories in bed after lights out I feel like it’s a big benefit of them having to share space. But yes, sibling conflict also requires a lot of parental involvement (at least at their ages)!

  2. Sounds like an interesting debut with enough in it to hint at a successful future. Yes, that first generation of higher education is a tricky one – sometimes all it succeeds in doing is leaving the person in a kind of limbo between her original “place” in life and the one she hopes to become part of. It tends to pay off more for the second generation, I think.

    1. It only recently occurred to me that my parents were both first generation university students. It was so expected for my brother and I to go on to university that I never thought about what a leap that would have been for my own parents. Conell does do well at capturing that gap, especially with a working class parent and an adult child who wants to pursue the arts, something not always valued by the generations who worked to survive.

    2. My siblings and I were first generation, driven (willingly) towards it by my father who always regretted that he hadn’t got the opportunity himself. Unusually for the time, he was just as determined that his daughters would go to university and have careers as his son. I felt in later life though that he felt a bit disgruntled that all his children ended up better educated than him, and with more successful careers, even though that had been his aim – it can be a tricky situation.

    3. You want your children to have better opportunities than you had but I suppose it is also a reminder of what you missed out on. How wonderful that he advocated for his daughters as well though.

  3. The whole ‘novel in a day’ thing is very difficult to pull off, so as a debut, not surprised this one floundered. I find the topic of unpaid internships really fascinating, especially because i am wholly cognizant of how privilleged I was to work in publishing that relies on unpaid internships. It’s such a white industry b/c its so exclusive and difficult to break into. My first publishing job/internship I was paid $1000 over 3 months (it was full time), and my monthly rent was $1100, so because my Dad was able to lend me the money, I was able to take it. So many people just aren’t in that situation, through no fault of their own or their parents…

    1. The story definitely shows the disparity in who can take a job or internship like that. Plus the idea of “paying your dues”, especially in the arts, by working for free or for “exposure” requires a lot of privilege but is often expected.

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