Book Review: Woman 99

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister

A vivid historical thriller about a young woman whose quest to free her sister from an infamous insane asylum risks her sanity, her safety and her life

Charlotte Smith’s future is planned to the last detail, and so was her sister’s – until Phoebe became a disruption. When their parents commit Phoebe to a notorious asylum, Charlotte knows there’s more to the story than madness. Shedding her identity to become an anonymous inmate, “Woman Ninety-Nine,” Charlotte uncovers dangerous secrets. Insanity isn’t the only reason her fellow inmates were put away – and those in power will do anything to keep the truth, or Charlotte, from getting out.

Review:
I found myself drawn into this book right away. Charlotte is a young woman of marriageable age who lives in the 1880s San Francisco and her life laid out for her — her mother is social climbing, her father is always working, she has fallen in love with someone she can’t marry, and her sister, Phoebe, is “difficult”. When Phoebe gets sent to a notorious asylum, Charlotte decides to follow her in order to free her, even if it means breaking the rules and risking her own happiness.
Macallister clearly did her research on asylums of the time as her descriptions of life there feel authentic and not “over the top”. I also loved the relationships that Charlotte developed. It is clear that she loves her sister and that she has a rosy view of her, but she grows and learns at the asylum, meeting and becoming friends with women she never would have even talked to before her experience there.
I also enjoyed the author’s social commentary on “inconvenient” women and how society tries to deal with them — and how many of the women fight back. But she doesn’t shy away from mental illness, either, recognizing that some people do need help because they simply cannot function in society as it is.
Overall, this was a great read that had pretty much everything — sisters, history, loyalty, suspense, romance, rule breaking, risk taking, and some difficult conversations. Woman 99 approaches an interesting time in history, especially as far as mental health is concerned, and does it in an engaging, very readable way.
Thank you to Netgalley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the review copy of this book.
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Book Review: Rabbits for Food

Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

A heartbreaking, irreverent, laugh-out-loud funny meditation on what it’s like to lose your mind from acclaimed novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum.

It’s New Year’s Eve, the holiday of forced gaiety, mandatory fun, and paper hats. While dining out with her husband and their friends, Kirshenbaum’s protagonist—an acerbic, mordantly witty, and clinically depressed writer—fully unravels. Her breakdown lands her in the psych ward of a prestigious New York hospital where she refuses all modes of recommended treatment. Instead, she passes the time chronicling the lives of her fellow “lunatics” and writing a novel about how she got to this place. Her story is a hilarious and harrowing deep dive into the disordered mind of a woman who sees the world all too clearly.

Propelled by stand-up comic timing and rife with pinpoint insights, her examination of what it means to be unloved, and loved; to succeed, and fail; to be, at once, both impervious and raw ultimately reveals how art can lead us out of—or into—the depths of disconsolate loneliness and piercing grief. Rabbits for Food, Kirshenbaum’s first novel in a decade, is a brauvra literary performance.

Review:
I’ve just finished reading Rabbits for Food and I’m not completely sure how I feel about it. It is definitely a vivid and compelling story of a woman, Bunny, and her life experiencing mental illness. The story is told unapologetically and with humour, shining light on some of the darkest days that people with severe depression often have. There are brilliant glimmers of thought and realization, along with explorations of despair.
Bunny, herself, is not all that likable, but she’s been severely depressed for years. She’s not often even been liked by the other people in her life, not even her family. Her spiraling mental illness is hard to witness and is incredibly sad. There are clear moments of writing where the author vividly captures what it is like to be clinically depressed and these are necessarily disturbing.
Finally, Bunny ends up in the psychiatric ward of the hospital where she refuses all drug treatment and therapy. There she writes and evaluates the other “psychos”, which broadens the scope of mental illness in the book. Again, there is an honesty presented, like the author was explaining a personal experience or that of someone close to her (or she did a lot of great research — I don’t know enough about the author to claim to know her personal story!).
Perhaps I found the book difficult because mental illness is difficult and everyone has different reactions and symptoms. There is no one size fits all cure and doctors are often guessing at which treatments will be effective. I do like the humour the author used when discussing this subject because I think humour helps in hard situations.
Thank you to Edelweiss+ and the publisher for the review copy of this book.
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Book Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

A shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature. Our narrator has many of the advantages of life, on the surface. Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, she lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like everything else, by her inheritance. But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents in college, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?

This story of a year spent under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs, designed to heal us from our alienation from this world, shows us how reasonable, even necessary, that alienation sometimes is. Blackly funny, both merciless and compassionate – dangling its legs over the ledge of 9/11 – this novel is a showcase for the gifts of one of America’s major young writers working at the height of her powers.

Review:
This is a book that definitely won’t be for everyone, and unfortunately, it wasn’t for me. I gravitate towards books that portray mental illness but this one, though well written in many ways, didn’t hold my interest.
Maybe it was because I really didn’t like the main character. I found her whiny and self-involved. I didn’t like how she fell apart so completely when her boyfriend left — so much so that she had to spend an entire year in a self-induced medication coma — even though she had so many other things going for her. I know life is hard and that we all react to loss or problems differently, but the narrator’s reactions to her issues didn’t resonate with me at all as being authentic. And then the narrator finds the most terrible psychiatrist who will basically prescribe anything that she wants even though it is clearly wrong, and that she the proceeds to take all of these strange meds for a year and come out of the whole thing refreshed and physically undamaged felt like an affront.
I’m sure that the author is trying to say something poignant about modern society and our mental heath, but it did not speak to me.
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