Melissa Ginsburg brings a little of her background into her novel, The House Uptown. She sets part of the book set in Iowa, where she earned her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and she sets the majority of the story in New Orleans, a city that was like a second home to her growing up. Originally from Houston, Texas, she’s now living in Oxford, Mississippi and is happily teaching courses on both fiction and poetry, two genres in which she has published works.
Ginsburg delivers a slow-burn novel that follows young fourteen-year-old Ava from Iowa to her grandmother’s house in New Orleans, Louisiana, after the recent death of her mother and the more distant death of her father. Upon her arrival, it becomes clear that she would be the most mature, level-headed, responsible character. It’s a refreshing change from the angsty teenager-focused novel, however concerning it may feel for me reading this as a mother myself. It’s an appealing aspect to have such a responsible character in the face of what can only be described as recklessness.
Ava’s grandmother, Lane, and her assistant, Oliver, are the two other central characters involved. Both smoke copious amounts of marijuana and Oliver certainly has a drinking problem. This leaves Ava in a situation where there aren’t really any rules and she has the freedom to do whatever she chooses with her time, as Lane is often preoccupied with her own art. As a responsible kid, Ava uses her time to explore New Orleans, which easily becomes a character itself through the lens of her culture shock.
There’s an interesting layer of suspense added to the story when it becomes clear that Lane has some sort of dementia or Alzheimer’s. More often than not, she confuses who people are and even entirely forgets Ava’s presence to the point of aiming a gun at her. This forgetfulness, however troubling, seems to be an effective device for bringing the past into the present. This blurring of time reveals a dark secret over the course of the novel, though it does take some time to get there and left me more than a little impatient at times for an increase in pace. Still, I found myself helplessly turning the page to figure out what would happen next. I was constantly hoping I would find another piece to the puzzle of what exactly happened in the past that was introduced at the very beginning of the novel.
Ginsburg beautifully delivers the setting of New Orleans in a no-nonsense sort of way. She captures the absurdity of the liquor laws, the suffocating heat, and the confusing road system. It’s a nice change to see a novel take on a realistic approach to a city that is very much romanticized nearly everywhere else. This approach made the whole book feel so much more real. Here is a city, though it’s not so different from anywhere else, and it’s the home of these eccentric characters who have a dangerous secret. It’s the perfect setup for a thriller-esque novel.
While I constantly found myself feeling impatient for the pace to pick up, I’m definitely glad I finished this book. Navigating the twists and turns of the mystery and arriving at such a surprising ending was gratifying enough, though it certainly wasn’t a “neat” conclusion. This is a story that will stick with you long after you’ve finished. Not because it gives you a fairytale ending where everything ends on a happy note, wrapped up and tied with a neat little bow, but because of the poignant authenticity of it. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s messy, and it leaves a lot unresolved. Because of this, it becomes relatable. Not every story ends with a happily ever after, and The House Uptown takes advantage of that reality. Things happen that are out of our control on a daily basis; It’s how we handle them that matters. I wonder, then, how Ava is going to handle her existence after everything she experienced in this book.
The House Uptown
By Melissa Ginsburg
Published March 16, 2021
Paperback released December 14, 2021