A young woman sneaks into a California insane asylum to rescue her sister in Macallister’s (Girl in Disguise, 2017, etc.) third novel.
Charlotte Smith, the 20-year-old daughter of a San Francisco shipping magnate, is about to be thrust, for her parents’ convenience, into a marriage she did not choose; the groom's identity is not immediately revealed. Arguably worse, the Smiths have committed Charlotte’s beloved sister, Phoebe, who suffers from what today might be classified as bipolar disorder, to Goldengrove, an asylum for the “curable insane.” What’s a sheltered, finishing school–educated debutante to do? Follow Nelly Bly’s notorious example and infiltrate Goldengrove under an assumed identity, that of a suicidal vagrant, while her parents think she's off on a six-week sojourn in Newport, Rhode Island. The novel’s backstory unspools in flashbacks, revealing that Charlotte has a crush on Henry Sidwell, the son of her father’s chief investor and creditor. The present-time action focuses on Charlotte’s search for Phoebe while chronicling life in a mental institution, which, though progressive for 1888, seems to assign treatment regimens according to class. Goldengrove is controlled by the Sidwell family, and the branch least concerned with inmate well-being has been left in charge, with the result that the asylum’s mission morphs from therapies (albeit some very primitive ones) to contracting out the patients as slave labor. Although insights about the limited choices afforded women of all classes, and suitably gothic plot twists, keep us reading, too many improbabilities disrupt the narrative flow. The Smiths are portrayed as overanxious yet allow Charlotte to embark unchaperoned (and without luggage) on a supposed cross-country journey and make no effort to inquire about Phoebe’s welfare. Since suspense is plentiful there is no need to postpone certain disclosures, such as the identity of Charlotte’s fiance. Withholding information is particularly problematic in the first-person narrative of a protagonist as self-reflective as Charlotte. The denouement, with its concessions to period conventionality, removes any hope that this novel will deliver on its feminist leanings.
A gripping melodrama that may leave readers feeling gaslighted.