Chelsea, MA

Cults, Secrets and Survival in "The Family Upstairs" and "The Family Remains"

The Fiction Addiction

In The Family Upstairs, by Lisa Jewell, Libby has always known she was adopted, but on her twenty-fifth birthday, she discovers she’s inherited a house. Not just a regular house, but the massive Chelsea mansion that belonged to her birth parents, and where her parents were found dead in an apparent cult suicide. Although her parents and an unknown third person were underfed and wearing handmade clothes when they died, baby Libby was found healthy and safe in her crib upstairs. There are also reports of other children who’d been living in the house and were never found. Naturally, she starts to investigate her birth family, and also naturally, she uncovers so many twisted family secrets.

The pacing is just slightly off in The Family Upstairs, mostly when a character alludes to their Big Secret and then tries awkwardly to drop the subject. (This is my least favorite way to build suspense.) But there are so many twists and skillful misdirections that I loved it anyway. There’s a real question of complicity throughout this story, as we see characters pushed to take more and more disturbing actions, often because there aren’t any good choices or because everything is already so far off the rails that these disturbing choices kind of make sense.   There’s a character who’s completely evil,  and then there’s kind of an orbit of people either actively helping him or passively enabling him, or they could be aware of his evil, if they looked closer. I think that’s much more frightening than direct evil, personally, because it feels more possible.

I just loved the twists, with disturbing surprises right up until the very last page.
The Family Remains(cover art from the publisher)

The upcoming sequel, The Family Remains, promises to unravel that cliffhanger ending. This novel picks up with the characters from the first book, and sees how the cult survivors are adjusting to "normal" life. But with millions of pounds, multiple missing people, and now the reappearance of a certain body from the first novel, nothing is really normal in this book.

This is an unusual sequel, because the story revisits the characters (and Henry's shocking revelation!), but the whole style is so different. I was expecting a modern-gothic horror, like the first one. Instead it's still suspenseful, but it's more of a police investigation into old and new secrets. 

Lucy and Henry want to find another survivor who hasn't been seen since the night they all escaped the house of horrors.  Meanwhile, a body has been found that seems to come from the old mansion on Cheyne Walk, but has clearly been moved, sparking an investigation that leads to questions into all the missing people from the first book.  The feeling is very different from the dark, gothic mystery in the first one. This time I wondered if the survivors would be forced to relive their trauma and re-explain themselves, as the police got closer to the truth. 

This was a great thriller where I was able to jump into the action almost immediately because I'd already met the characters in the first one. The book's atmosphere was entirely different from the first, but the author's also good at investigation thrillers, so while I was surprised to find such a different feel, I still enjoyed it. 

Small note for other American readers: I absolutely bought all of the cult, the house of horrors, the remains found, the reversals, etc., but then a character eats an In-n-Out burger in Chicago? No way. That is false. There is no In-n-Out in Chicago. There is no In-n-Out in Illinois. There is no In-n-Out in the Midwest, or on the East Coast, while we're at it. Apparently my suspension of disbelief in fiction accepts two ex-wives in the same place on their separate murderous revenge plans, but does not accept a Californian burger in Chicago.  

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