by Greer Macallister
Pub date: 1st April 2019
When Charlotte Smith’s wealthy parents commit her beloved sister Phoebe to the infamous Goldengrove Asylum, Charlotte knows there’s more to the story than madness. She risks everything and follows her sister inside, surrendering her real identity as a privileged young lady of San Francisco society to become a nameless inmate, Woman 99.
The longer she stays, the more she realizes that many of the women of Goldengrove aren’t insane, merely inconvenient ― and that her search for the truth threatens to dig up secrets that some very powerful people would do anything to keep.
I saw how the other days could flee just as quickly, racing, running like sand through an hourglass. I could not let the sand run out before I found her. Without the utmost secrecy, without the utmost speed, this would all be for nothing
This novel was a wonderful, harrowing read from start to finish. It was truly a testament to the bond between sisters, and between women who aren’t joined by blood – the sisterhood created through a shared experience.
It is by no means an easy read; there are descriptions of violence and the treatments the women were forced to accept are absolutely vile to imagine, horrors such as frozen hose downs and being forced to sit, in silence, on benches for hours on end.
It’s horrifying to think a lot of the novel is based around fact as women’s asylums in the 1800s truly used these methods. Another alarming truth that is incorporated into the story is that a lot of the women weren’t mad (and those that were would today be considered to have understandable mental illnesses such as post-natal depression, PTSD, borderline personality disorder and so on), but were put into asylums to be kept quiet while their high society families brushed indiscretions like affairs and wishing to go to school under the carpet.
I had found friends here, among those who society and family alike had labelled and dismissed as madwomen.
Our narrator is Charlotte, a meek young lady in San Francisco society who worships her older sister and becomes increasingly worried about her deteriorating mental health. After her sister is sent to the asylum and Charlotte is pushed into an arranged engagement by her mother, she finds a strength she never knew she had and decides to emulate Nellie Bly by getting committed to the asylum herself as a ‘madwoman’ to try save Phoebe.
Charlotte was a very impressive narrator – it was fascinating to watch her struggle with her sanity as the conditions of the asylum truly did threaten to make her mad. I particularly enjoyed how each night, to ward off the bad dreams of the darkness, she would play a memory in her head; not only did it give insight into her past and character, but later as she became overwhelmed by her treatment, the memories would twist into horrible nightmares. For example, when she reminisces about her beau, she can’t help but imagine his face horribly burnt and scarred as her recollections become marred with her harrowing experience in the asylum.
It had not occurred to me until I was inside the asylum myself that the same fierce, heedless spirit that had landed Phoebe here was the fierce, heedless spirit I’d loved in her when we were young.
Charlotte’s fellow patients at the asylum are a fascinating collection of women. All coming from different backgrounds, their relationships with Charlotte and amongst each other were wonderfully crafted. The best example of this was when boisterous new girl Martha starts a fight with resident bully Bess – after Martha is pulled away to be punished, returning to the sleeping quarters with a bruised and bloodied face, Bess is the first to welcome her back with a handshake. The idea that these women find kindred spirits, some for the first time ever, in the asylum is a beautifully ironic thing.
Last night, I’d lamented how along I was, but that was foolish. Women stood to my left and right, all facing the sun together with me. Inside the fence below there were dozens, scores of women. Some were mad, and some weren’t. Some, mad or no, could be helpful to me.
Overall, this was an engaging novel with plenty of twists and turns, some I found obvious and others that genuinely took me by surprise. My favourite element has to be the women and the complicated, tentative and deep friendships they develop. The only reason this isn’t 5 stars is because I felt everything wrapped up a little too neatly at the end and the romantic subplot, while endearing, felt very underdeveloped. Very small things in an otherwise gorgeous read!
If you liked this you should read…: The Ballroom by Anna Hope*
1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever.
I received Woman 99 from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review – thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark for the copy!
*if you’ve enjoyed my review and feel like you want to purchase this novel, please consider doing so through my affiliate link! I will receive a small commission, at no expense to you 🙂