Sunday, September 20, 2015
Book Review: What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Author: Ellen Marie Wiseman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Content Alert: Psychological abuse, some swearing
Izzy is seventeen, and has been living with relatives or foster parents for a decade, since her mother killed her father and was sent to prison. When her newest foster parents get Izzy involved in a history project at a recently-closed mental hospital, Izzy gets captivated by the story of Clara, an apparently healthy eighteen-year-old girl who was institutionalized in 1929. Through coming to understand Clara, Izzy gains insight into her mother's motivations, and begins to gain some hope for her own future.
Wiseman does a lot of things right in What She Left Behind: both Izzy and Clara are interesting and complicated, and their alternating narratives are nicely balanced and subtly parallel. The book is also painstakingly researched, and the view of mental hospitals in the mid-20th century is pretty heartbreaking. What I didn't like about the novel is that many of the supporting characters are very flat. We never really understand what motivates Clara's parents to lie about her mental state and have her forcibly committed. I mean, we understand that they're upset that she has fallen in love with the wrong kind of man, but who has their daughter put into a mental hospital (basically worse than a jail) for that offense? I didn't find their actions believable. I was similarly annoyed by the bullies at Izzy's school, who seem in the thrall of a single mean girl (why?) and whose offenses go way beyond just razzing the new girl. I could go on with the staff of the mental hospital as well. If the characters were more nuanced, or at least their horrible actions were more clearly explained, I think I would have liked this book a lot better.