Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
288 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
During the Civil War, Iris Dunleavy, the wife of a plantation owner, is convicted of madness and sent to Sanibel Asylum. Knowing full well that she is not insane, Iris longs for the chance to escape, and is determined to get away from the asylum and its egotistical doctor. But her plans are made more difficult when she meets and befriends Ambrose, a soldier whose madness is so severe that he can only be comforted by the color blue. The two begin to fall in love, and Iris becomes convinced that she must take Ambrose with her when she escapes. But can their love survive in such maddening times?
I don’t read a lot of adult historical fiction, but the summary – and the love story – were too good for me to pass up. And I’m glad I got a chance to read this book, because I really enjoyed it a lot. There was something very gentle and smooth about the storytelling; the prose isn’t unbelievably beautiful or anything, but there were still numerous phrases and lines that caught my attention and were just really well done. I enjoyed the characters, which you get to experience because the book flips viewpoints throughout, so we’re reading from Iris’ point of view, and Ambrose’s, and the doctor’s, and the doctor’s son, back and forth constantly. Normally this would bother me because it’s so easy to do this in a clunky manner, but the switch was very seamless and smooth and just worked perfectly for this book.
All of the characters had something about them that made them memorable. Iris, who is willing to stand up for herself and what she believes in and is so incredibly strong throughout the entire story. Ambrose, who is stronger than he thinks he is, but so clearly in the grip of what we’d now call PTSD (which of course was considered insanity back in the 1860s). The doctor, who is so unbelievably arrogant and pompous and who can’t stand to hear a bad word said about him. Wendell, convinced he’s going crazy because he’s doing what all boys his age do, who is stuck on the island without any companionship his own age, which is ultimately what’s making him crazy. And then you have the numerous asylum inmates: the woman who swallows things, the man whose feet are too heavy, the girl who’s overly sympathetic to all living things. All of these characters just created an absolutely memorable setting and a truly wonderful story.
The doctor was perhaps the most striking character for me personally, particularly his insane (ha, see what I did there?) infatuation with Iris. He absolutely cannot stand her to be upset with him, and goes to great lengths to try to win her approval, when all he would have needed to do was simply LISTEN to her. I had such a hard time with him – I went back and forth, feeling sympathetic, and then hating him, over and over so many times that I lost count. He is so condescending, and one line in particular really got to me (and to Iris): “I know there will be some words and phrases with which you will not be familiar…” like she can’t possibly understand because she is a woman and he is a man and there’s just no way she can possibly be smart or cunning or anything else. Just crazy, because her husband and a judge said so. But then he’d go and do things to try to make up for his mistakes at various times and you could tell he was trying but just really didn’t know what to do. He was just really well-developed and written; it takes a lot for me to hate a character, and that’s exactly the emotion I was feeling toward him at times.
At the heart of this book is the love story between Ambrose and Iris, that was really beautifully crafted. I have a soft spot for romance novels, and while this wasn’t completely a romance, there were large portions of it that definitely felt that way. Ambrose is a very sick man, but Iris is convinced that she can fix him, that they can live together and be happy. As the book goes on, you learn her story, and also Ambrose’s, and you can see why he is the way he is, and what drove her to be called “insane”. Ambrose had a line about war that I loved, which said, “…that is the horror of war, that somewhere inside it for every unlucky man is the moment that undoes him.” I think it’s particularly apt in today’s time with all of the veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan who have come home with PTSD and are truly struggling. And I think that Iris was good for him; I loved the time they were able to spend together, the love that they felt for each other, and the ways that each made the other a better person.
There were a couple of quotes that I want to share. Keep in mind that these are from an uncorrected e-galley, so they may not be the same in the finished version.
“…the doctor did not believe her memory. It was copper next to her husband’s gold.” (18%)
“‘…[why] did you not think of more appropriate venues to have your voice heard?’
‘I am a woman, Doctor. I do not have a voice.'” (35%)
“I was not crazy when I came to this island.” (39%)
“She loved it when he broke through with a gesture of strength. Became the man again. Let her be the woman.” (91%)
The one thing that caught my attention the most was that the asylum had a habit of making even the sane “insane” in some way. I loved how this book showed that; you can see it in everyone, from the doctor, to his wife, to his son, to the patients who probably didn’t have anything wrong with them at all, particularly Iris, whose only fault was that she was independent and a free thinker, which just wasn’t the done thing. This was just a really fabulous look at that time period, and the ways that everyone viewed each other, and the societal norms and what happened when you didn’t follow them. There were also all these little additions about the war itself, and the effect it was having on the country and the people, even those who weren’t fighting. How the war itself was causing its own type of insanity, not only in the former soldiers but in everyone. Insanity was a very clear theme in this book, and it was addressed in really careful and interesting ways.
If you want a fast read, with multiple engaging characters, and a beautifully-developed love story, check this one out. I’d definitely recommend it.
An e-galley was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.