Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: September 6, 2010
Genre: Young Adult Historical
Seventeen-year-old Louisa Cosgrove longs to break free from her respectable life as a Victorian doctor’s daughter. But her dreams become a nightmare when Louisa is sent to Wildthorn Hall: labeled a lunatic, deprived of her liberty and even her real name. As she unravels the betrayals that led to her incarceration, she realizes there are many kinds of prison. She must be honest with herself – and others – in order to be set free. And love may be the key…
As Wildthorn opens, Louisa Cosgrove has been sent away by her brother to be a companion to his friend’s mysterious sister. Accompanying her on this trip is a dour, odd woman and Louisa’s sense of foreboding deepens when she glimpses what she thinks is her new home: a huge fenced-in estate that seems far too large for one family. When she enters, she finds out she’s actually in the insane asylum Wildthorn Hall and that she’s been admitted under the name Lucy Childs. Desperately trying to convince the attendants that there’s been a mistake, she only ends up confirming what they’ve been told: that she’s suffering from delusions and is in desperate need of treatment.
The story then unfolds in flashbacks, from Louisa’s early childhood on (first person present and past). I generally really, really don’t like it when authors rely on this trick to tell a back story, but in this case, it works well in both building an emotional connection to Louisa and setting up the mystery of who might have had her committed. Her brother Tom was the likely suspect, having resented her since childhood because her interest in science and medicine brought her closer to their father, but there are others who may have helped him.
Nineteenth-century insane asylums were horrific and the author gave only a slice of that here, perhaps because of the intended YA audience or maybe just because she didn’t have the space to go too in depth. Louisa stayed in one of the worst wards only briefly and even then, was saved from the depths of her depression by visits from a friendly nurse. There were places where the flashbacks to Louisa’s past could have been shortened so the most interesting part of the story, the time in the asylum, could have been explored more. Her interactions with another patient (the most extensive one) were compelling; I wish there had been more of those types of things and less of her arguing with her mother about going out on visits.
I initially was frustrated with Louisa’s dawning realization that she was a lesbian. I wondered why the author had to grab my by the hand and force me down the, “look, she’s a tomboy!” path. After all, Louisa like to play with her brother Tom’s toys, she preferred to play outside rather than do girl things, she didn’t like the fancy dolls, she preferred books and science and she hated doing things that her mother wanted. So she must be a lesbian, right? I’m still sort of crabby about that, but as a whole, I think the author wrote the issue into the story well beyond that. It spawned an incident that drove the mystery, then it just became who Louisa was and she never thought anything about it after that until there was a reason to.
The story unfortunately lost control as soon as Louisa escaped from Wildthorn; I was completely confused by the answer to who committed her to the asylum and why and how Louisa reacted to it. The other characters all had strange reactions to it as well. Strange is just about the only word I can use. The plot wrap-up in general seemed a little too quick and shallow given what I knew of the characters from the rest of the book, although it does span a decent amount of time.
I think this still would be a good book for the youngest end of the targeted YA range, but I don’t know that upper end would find it satisfying.
My Rating: C+