Note: spoilers below!
Set in the late 1800’s, this story is about two sisters who live in San Franciso. Charlotte has always felt protective of her younger sister Phoebe, who appears to have bipolar disorder (and myabe schizophrenia). Her behavior becomes unmanageable (mostly because it publicly embarasses the family) so the parents send Phoebe to an insane asylum. Charlotte is heartbroken and angered by this, and determines to get her sister back. She fakes a suicide attempt, is quickly bundled off to the nearest mental institution- conveniently the same one her sister’s in. Then begins a long, dangerous search to find her sister and bring her home. Dangerous because of course, once inside the asylum Charlotte is at the mercy of the staff. She discloses nothing at first, attempting to fit in and act like she really belongs there. Treatments ranged from ludicrous to downright horrific- although some probably had merit- such as forced walks out in the open air for exercise. Food was poor quality, drugs were administered freely to those deemed difficult to control, and physical punishment or confinement – being beaten, tied up or shut in dark padded cells- a regular thing. Charlotte gets to know some of the other inmates, finds a secret map, sneaks around and eventually locates her sister. She thinks now the hard part is over: just tell the doctor they’re both sane, and they’ll get out. But nobody believes her.
This book is labeled a mystery on the cover, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up. I didn’t think I liked mysteries! but here I wanted to find the answer to questions: would Charlotte find her sister in the asylum? would they avoid the worst of the treatments and escape? I’m glad this story looked at some of the tougher issues. So many of the women in there were not actually suffering from mental illness. They had defied convention, refused to follow social norms, displeased their husbands, or were simply found inconvenient. Charlotte is outraged when she discovers this, and determines to do something about it- but then she’s surprised to find not all of her new friends want to leave the asylum. Some find the freedom to act and speak out in that environment liberating. Others actually need to be “looked after”- suffering from depression, epilepsy, or any number of disorders.
I liked that this story tied up all the loose ends (thought some felt a bit too tidy). When Charlotte and her sister finally get free and return home, they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms. They learn that powerful people in the community run the asylum (for profit from items the inmates made with forced labor) and aren’t going to make readily change things. Charlotte is promised to a certain man to marry, but she wants the brother instead (this was told a lot in flashbacks). One of her friends who escapes the asylum with them, reveals that she was there because her husband had attempted to murder her, and now he has to be confronted. Charlotte’s sister Phoebe doesn’t feel comfortable in their family home after having lived at the asylum so many years. It’s all quite a mess, but gets straightened out well enough.
This one was audiobook format- 13 hours of listening time. Voice of Nina Alvamar. Borrowed from the public library.