If the Fairbrothers, the dysfunctional family at the center of Catherine Cookson's latest romance, were not living in turn-of-the-century England, they would be prime candidates for Jerry Springer's show. As patriarch Samuel, a hardworking but loudmouthed shoe magnate (and the upstart of the title), tries to move his working-class clan up the social ladder by purchasing a 34-room mansion in the country, the family confronts adultery, unwed pregnancy, divorce, even suicide—not to mention the haughty disdain of the local gentry.
Helping the family cope is the Fair-brothers' oh-so-proper butler Roger Maitland, who tolerates Samuel's bumptiousness largely because of his own affection for his master's oldest daughter, the wise-beyond-her-years Janet. And of course, Janet—much to her social-climbing father's dismay—secretly adores Roger in return.
With scores of internationally popular historical novels to her name, among them The Golden Straw and The Maltese Angel, the 91-year-old Cookson sketches a vivid picture of rural English life in the early 1900s. Her prose can be overwrought, and some of her supporting characters aren't fully drawn. But the soapy romance between Janet and Roger is tough to resist. (Simon & Schuster, $23)