About the Book:
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.
A historical thriller rich in detail, deception, and revelation, Woman 99 honours the fierce women of the past, born into a world that denied them power but underestimated their strength.
“Though I had leapt into the water of the Bay not intending to die, it easily could have been my fate. Intending a thing had nothing to do with whether it came to pass.”
What an interesting story this turned out to be. I have always been drawn to the history of mental asylums and Greer Macallister has woven a lot of historical detail into this novel, particularly regarding the state of mental asylums, the type of treatments, the powerlessness of women and the ease with which they could be committed to an institution, most often with no options for release. This is one area of history where there is little light, it’s all saturating darkness and misery.
“Her official diagnosis was mania brought on by emotional turmoil. I hadn’t expected to see that. My gut clenched. Me. I was the turmoil.”
When Charlotte Smith’s sister, Phoebe, is committed to a mental asylum by their parents, she is left bereft, desperately missing her sister and also consumed with a misplaced guilt. She decides to deceive her parents and instead of visiting an aunt for six weeks of respite, she travels into the city and then walks off a jetty, plunging herself into the Bay of San Francisco. Her intent is to be committed to the same asylum as her sister so she can tell the staff there that her sister is not crazy and needs to be released into Charlotte’s care and returned home.
Now, I had some real issues with this premise and as a consequence, it was touch and go for me at the beginning of this novel. I’m going to raise them here, not to be nit-picking, but to highlight that despite these flaws, it really is worth continuing with the novel (I’m serious, I was almost going to stop reading, the plot seemed so full of holes and obvious coincidences). Now, Charlotte could have drowned (which she later acknowledges), and she could have also been committed to a different institution, a state run one (there is mention of these throughout the text, some of which were closer to San Francisco than the one she ended up in). Then there’s the absolute naivety of thinking you can be committed to a mental asylum for attempted suicide and then just announce you are actually well and you’d like to take your sister home please. Thankfully, Charlotte realised the flaws in her plan reasonably early on in her stay at the asylum, which redeemed this aspect of the story for me. Yet, she still remained to a certain degree in a state of denial over the extent of Phoebe’s illness. At the start of the novel, her memories gloss over Phoebe’s behaviours and erratic moods, yet the longer Charlotte remained in the asylum herself, the more realistic her memories became. I liked how the author did this, like a dawning of realisation that may never have come to Charlotte had she not to a certain degree, ‘walked in her sister’s shoes’. Likewise, the folly of her plan rests heavily on Charlotte as the novel progresses, her time within the asylum stretching out, as every plan she concocts to leave gets foiled. Charlotte’s experiences were a real eye opener to the utter powerlessness of women in the 19th century (and in the centuries prior). Property of their parents only to be transferred across as the property of a husband. Tied up with these notions of women as property was the sad fact that not all of the women committed to the asylum were suffering from a mental illness. Many were just inconvenient to a parent or a husband, yet they were subjected to the same experimental and often cruel ‘treatments’ alongside the women who were actually mentally ill.
“I might never get out. It was time to admit it. I had set and sprung my own trap.”
While this novel is firmly historical fiction, it does morph into a thriller of sorts, as conditions within the asylum deteriorate and the women become restless with starvation and endless mistreatment. Disruptions break out and as staff are laid off and the remaining ones are stretched beyond their limits, plans are hatched for escape. When Charlotte makes a horrifying connection between one of the patients and her own outside life, rescuing Phoebe no longer remains her sole focus. So, what began as a little flimsy (for me) morphed into a solid storyline that was highly absorbing, deeply sad, and slightly horrific. All the essential ingredients! Oh, to have been a woman before the 20th century – you wouldn’t go back in time for quids.
“A woman’s mind is a powerful weapon. She had used hers quite brilliantly.”
Thanks is extended to Sourcebooks Landmark via NetGalley for providing me with a copy of Woman 99 for review.
About the Author:
Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a novelist, poet, short story writer, and playwright who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel The Magician’s Lie was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her novel Girl in Disguise, also an Indie Next pick, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “a well-told, superb story.” She lives with her family in Washington, DC.
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark
Released on 5th March 2019