Sunday, September 16, 2018

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

I had this novel on my TBR list because I've got a reading group meeting Tuesday to discuss it for our September read. It's a novel I've seen many times on the shelves at my local B&N; I even stocked it on paperback tables, but never wanted to read it. This was my opportunity to do so--and wow, this is not a novel for the faint of heart. 

Told in two voices: Clara, a young upper class woman in 1929, and Izzy, a young teen  in contemporary times living with her foster parents. Clara Cartwright is in love with Bruno, a handsome immigrant who came to America to start a new life. Her father, a total asshole (sorry, but he is just horrible!) and her unfeeling mother insist she marry someone that matches her station. When she says no, her father has the police take her to an insane asylum, saying she's crazy. And from there, Clara's life takes just one horrible spiral down after another. At first, she's in a somewhat nice place, but still held against her will and not allowed any communication with Bruno. The stock market crash of 1929 creates a money shortage for her father, who writes her to tell her she has to go to another place: The Willard Asylum, which is state run. He can't afford to keep her at her current place and keep his home. Like I said, a complete unfeeling asshole. Her mother isn't any better, letting her only daughter be carted away under the claim that she's unstable. No one will believe Clara that she's perfectly sane, and her father is just mad at her for not marrying who he wants her to marry. Her pleas fall on deaf ears, and she's seen as willful and yes, mentally unstable. 

Izzy's foster parents are involved in a museum project that is collecting and studying patient suitcases found in the basement of the now defunct Willard Asylum. Izzy isn't interested in stepping foot on the grounds of the asylum; her mother is in jail for killing her father, and is considered "insane". It hits a bit too close to home for Izzy, who still doesn't understand why her mother shot her father ten years before. 

One of the trunks that they open is Clara's, and it's immediate that this is not the typical patient at Willard. Expensive dresses, postcards from Paris, a photograph of a young woman and man, both gorgeous. A journal that abruptly stops after a passage stating that Clara is going to Willard. Izzy becomes fascinated with Clara, and wants to know what happens to her. 

As the novel moves back and forth between Clara and Izzy, we experience all the horrible pain Clara goes through as time goes by and she can't get out of Willard. So much happens to her, such cruelty, that it was sometimes hard to read. And to make matters worse, it was happening to hundreds of people at Willard, too. The treatment of the mentally insane was just horrific and inhumane. So many people put in asylums who were perfectly normal, but either angered their spouse/parent, or were depressed, or fell on hard times. Nowadays they would be given counseling and medicine; and those women who spoke up? They'd be running companies and changing the world. 

I don't want to give more of the story away, because a lot happens to Clara--big things--and it's important that you find them out as you read, and as Izzy discovers bits of Clara's life. Izzy's situation involves self-harm and bullying from fellow students, but I found her and Clara both to be incredibly tough young ladies who fought to be heard and understood. Would Izzy be the one who would finally free Clara's voice?

It's a pretty good novel, but some of it may make you uncomfortable.The brutal treatment of patients considered insane, and especially the women, is hard to take. The feelings of despair and hopelessness Clara experience are just heartbreaking.You just wish so much for her to have a happy ending. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that will keep you up at night reading. Clara is a character you won't soon forget. Izzy is a strong young woman who, while trying to figure out her own life, decides she must uncover Clara's story and deliver justice denied to Clara sixty years before. 

Available in paperback ebook, and audio. 

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