Lee Conell’s novel “The Party Upstairs” (Penguin Press), out now, tracks a day in the life of a co-op building on the Upper West Side — all of its trash, hidden rooms and hallways, broken sinks — and all of the human relationships, pecking orders and drama contained within it.
Ruby is a young woman who has moved back in with her parents, having just graduated from a small private liberal arts college where she’s accumulated plenty of debt but no job offers.
Her father is the building super, and they live in a basement apartment while her dad navigates the awkward balance of handling nonstop requests from tenants who often try to be his friend.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Ruby’s childhood friend Caroline, the daughter of one of the most affluent tenants in the building, is planning a big party.
Alternating between Ruby’s point of view and that of her father, “The Party Upstairs” is a sharp novel about privilege and gentrification, and about the city’s vanishing middle class.
Throughout the novel, the threat of losing his superintendent position — and the rent-free apartment that comes with it — is dangled.
The inspiration for the novel came naturally; Conell’s father worked as a city building superintendent for over 30 years before retiring in August 2019 — and subsequently moving to the Hudson Valley.
“They couldn’t afford to stay in the city. You spend your whole life living and working here, but can’t afford to be here,” says Conell. “And what does that do to create a sense of sustainable community, when the only way that being here makes sense is that you will leave? You can’t have a community founded on that.”
Conell moved back into the city in January with her husband, a medical resident, after more than a decade away. The return — mere months before the city went into its lockdown — was interesting, to say the least. “Part of me thought, What timing to come back at this moment!” she acknowledges with a laugh. “But I identify so strongly with [the city]. When I was away from it, I became aware of the ways it shaped me. Being back here and witnessing these past few months — this has been a traumatic experience that we’ll feel the effects of for a very long time. But I’m glad I’m here.”
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