There’s nothing like a great New York City novel, and praise be to the novelists who take us there: Think Cathleen Schine, Elinor Lipman, Emma Straub, Jennifer Egan and now Lee Conell, whose exquisite debut gets to the heart of the city via the super of an Upper West Side co-op and his frustratingly underemployed daughter.
Martin lives in the building’s basement apartment with his wife, Debra, and 24-year-old daughter, Ruby, who has just moved home with an art history degree but no way to pay her student loans. Ruby’s friend Caroline, whose affluent family lives in the co-op penthouse, is also back home, but her wealth has cushioned the transition from college to what-comes-next. Though the girls have been friends since childhood, Ruby has grown increasingly discomfited by Caroline’s obliviousness to how her wealth brings her certain advantages.
The Party Upstairs is told over the course of a single day, beginning with an argument between father and daughter when Martin tries to get Ruby to meditate with him before work. Ruby readies herself for a job interview at the Museum of Natural History and plans to attend Caroline’s fancy penthouse party that night. Meanwhile, Martin’s anxiety is through the roof after dealing with needy tenants and his grumpy daughter, and now vivid memories of a recently deceased tenant are starting to trouble him.
After a disheartening job interview, Ruby is further provoked by flashbacks of the decades of inequities between herself and Caroline and by an unfortunate run-in with a neighborhood photographer. By the time of the party, Ruby is moved to act out in a way that dramatically disrupts the course of her life and the lives of her parents.
Like Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, The Party Upstairs will make you laugh even as you grapple with how money defines many of its characters’ most significant choices. As chapters alternate between Ruby’s and Martin’s perspectives, Conell’s realistic dialogue and thoughtful plotting take us deep into the often unexpressed shame linked to financial uncertainty. The Party Upstairs is an on-the-nose, of-the-moment dark comedy that delves deep into issues of wealth, gender and privilege in the most iconic of American cities.