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.