They strip her naked, of everything – undo her whalebone corset, hook by hook. Locked away in Wildthorn Hall — a madhouse — they take her identity. She is now called Lucy Childs. She has no one; she has nothing. But, she is still seventeen-still Louisa Cosgrove, isn’t she? Who has done this unthinkable deed? Louisa must free herself, in more ways than one, and muster up the courage to be her true self, all the while solving her own twisted mystery and falling into an unconventional love…Okay, so no, this is neither a paranormal nor really a romance book, but a) I did not know for sure going in that there wouldn’t be something supernatural going on, and b) I don’t care because this book was very good and I want to review it. So out of this necessity is born Something Completely Different, where we here at You’re Killing Me highlight a book out of our typical genre because it was awesome or sucked royally. With that out of the way, on to the review!
We got a digital review copy of Wildthorn from the publishers and once again, I was psyched because this is another book I’ve been dying to read. The premise sounded fantastic – I’m a huge fan of stories in which the main character’s sanity is in question, not to mention Victorian settings, so this was once again right up my alley. But there was a downfall: books and movies with set-ups this intriguing and full of possibility rarely end up having a satisfying solution (see: Sphere, Contact, every Stephen King novel ever). So the immediate question raised by Wildthorn is: can it possibly be as good as it sounds? The answer? Both yes and no.
Wildthorn is an incredibly well-written book. It’s divided into four parts, and in my opinion, Part One is the most interesting. It alternates back and forth between the present and the past with each chapter, exploring both Louisa’s ongoing reaction to being committed to Wildthorn Hall, and pivotal moments from her youth that slowly shed light on her home life, family, and upbringing, all of which give the reader a better understanding of who Louisa is and why she may have been sent to Wildthorn.
The first half of this book was by far the most compelling thing I’ve read in a long time. The times I opened it up on the computer it kept me chained to my screen, devouring every word until I was forcibly ripped from it. That’s saying something for me, because I hate reading things on the computer. But Wildthorn was well worth it, and this time-skipping narrative was a large part of why it was so compelling: like the first season of Lost, it kept me on the edge of my seat with every chapter, wondering both what was going to happen to Louisa next in the asylum, and what new insight into her past we were going to be given with the next flashback. We are readily given both answers and new questions, and are drawn in a little deeper with each chapter.
Let me say this now: Jane Eagland is an excellent writer. Her development of Louisa as a character is wonderfully natural and organic. You believe this girl could be a real person, and you admire her for her strength and courage and intelligence in an era when those traits were not at all valued in a woman. And yet you also see her flaws: her stubbornness, her thoughtlessness, her impulsiveness and temper, and the way they negatively impact her life and her family. Eagland shows us all these different aspects of Lousia, creating an realistic, likable character while at the same time giving the reader ample room to believe that Louisa might not be as sane as she thinks she is. It’s a great dance, because you can see (especially in Louisa’s reaction to being committed) someone whose responses are both natural and possibly crazy. I honestly cannot praise her depiction of Louisa’s state of mind enough.
Eagland also does a great job of capturing the oppressiveness of both the asylum and the society in which Louisa lives. In both worlds the role that Louisa is given (inmate and woman, respectively) is confining and frustrating as she fights so hard to have the life that she wants, and to be heard and seen for who she is and not what others expect her to be. Reading it, I really felt with Louisa the frustration and the hopelessness that went along with each role and I admired her perseverance even more for it, because I don’t think I could have fought for myself the way Louisa did. In the asylum, especially in the lower wards, I think I would have gone insane. And the society…well, let’s just say it’s one of those books that make you want to punch the backwards-thinking sexist bigots (which would be nearly everyone but Louisa) in the face. In a lot of ways, Wildthorn does an excellent job of showing us how far we’ve progressed socially, and yet (in Louisa’s ‘unconventional love’) it also shows how far we have not.
The cast of supporting characters are varied and for the most part, nicely developed. Once again, Eagland does a very good job of making each character, friend or foe, human. They all have their motivations, and even when they’re doing horrible things to Louisa, you get a clear understanding of why. They are not caricatures, evil people for the sake of being evil (with one or two exceptions) – they’re evil because they’re weak. The same goes for the ‘good’ ones – they are ‘good’ because they are strong, and can stand up for what is right.
That being said, I do have some issues with this book. I mentioned that Part One was compelling, and it was, but as the flashbacks stopped and the narrative settled in to depicting Louisa’s time in Wildthorn and how she copes, it loses a little of that compulsive draw. What I found interesting was unraveling the mystery of why Louisa was sent to Wildthorn, and as the story goes on that mystery has to take a back seat sometimes to relationship development and Louisa’s experiences in and after Wildthorn. It’s never boring, and again, you understand why the novel progresses as it does (expanding on the treatment of both women and mental patients in that era), but it never gets as engaging as the first ten or so chapters.
And then there’s the solution to the mystery, that necessary evil to a premise so promising. NOTHING TOO SPOILERY, but I will imply stuff so be warned.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t care for it. The reason that Louisa was committed; the answer to the question of her identity; who was behind her being sent to Wildthorn; I found all of it to be a bit of a letdown. I’ll admit, I was expecting something twisty, something complex, something more than what it all really came down to, and I didn’t get that. The entire third act I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and though there were a few ‘twists’ as far as whodunit, none of them were as satisfying as what I had been expecting. I also found these twists to be a bit much – like we had to pile on justification after justification because the core reasoning behind Louisa’s institutionalization wasn’t believable enough.
I suppose that’s my mistake in wishing for this book to be something it wasn’t – Wildthorn is less a psychological thriller than it is a domestic drama and a spotlight on the social issues of an era. And that’s not a bad thing. The conclusion of the story is about Louisa growing up, coming to terms with who she is, as well as who the people around her are. She comes to see almost everyone she ever knew in a totally different light, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. And that’s the twist.
The last few chapters of the book drug a little bit, too, mostly because after we get all of the answers we were waiting for, there are still plenty of chapters to go. By this time you already know what’s going on and why, so it’s mostly about Louisa’s reaction to this and where she goes from there. It’s hard to critique, because looking back, I can see the reason for each Relationship Resolution Scene, but you really feel that they’re only included because the author needed to tie up loose ends before the ending, and we race from one to another, like the plot is playing red light, green light.
Still, despite my few issues with it, Wildthorn is a very good book. It’s engaging and wonderfully written, with some of the best protagonist development I’ve read in a very long time. It’s compelling, very moody and atmospheric, thought-provoking, and emotionally engaging. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for any other books by jane Eagland, and I very much recommend this one.
EDIT: According to her website, she has another book out called Whisper My Name, about Victorian-era spiritualism. SO ON IT.