Review: Blue Asylum

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Blue AsylumBlue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 10, 2012
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 288
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley

Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty, and property. On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents--some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. Which of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris. The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded "water treatment." She must escape, but she has found new hope and love with Ambrose. Can she take him with her? If they make it out, will the war have left anything for them to make a life from, back home? Blue Asylum is a vibrant, beautifully-imagined, absorbing story of the lines we all cross between sanity and madness. It is also the tale of a spirited woman, a wounded soldier, their impossible love, and the undeniable call of freedom.

First Sentence: “When Iris dreamed of that morning, the taste of blood was gone, and so was the odor of gunsmoke, but her other senses stayed alive.”

Nothing makes me more feminist smashy than reading historical fiction where women who dare to be themselves and not the obedient pet society wanted them to be are thanked for their strength by being sent to an insane asylum. Iris isn’t even that radical (by modern standards); she does want a man to take care of her, but not her evil, slave-owning husband. Even though later in the story, I don’t necessarily agree with all of Iris’ decisions, I can’t help sympathizing with her because I can see what she’s been through.

Just the other day, Heather of Coffee-Stained Pages and I were discussing historical fiction that dealt with the topic of slavery. Basically, we agreed that most of the books on slavery have the exact same viewpoint and narrative, whereas other historical fiction (like that of WWI or WWII, for example) is much more creative. Well, here comes Hepinstall with an exception to that. Although slavery is a central topic, along with the treatment of women, this story is nothing like any that I’ve read before. I love the comparison she draws between women’s issues and slavery.

The writing was beautiful, and I had a lot of lovely quotes from which to choose. Ultimately, I went with the one that speaks to my life most. I love that phrase ‘ecstatic loneliness,’ because, as an introvert, it really describes how I feel most of the time. No wonder reading is my favorite pastime. Plus, who can’t sympathize with a person who wants more out of life? Don’t we all?

The way that Hepinstall also focused on the other residents of the mental hospital was fascinating. All of the ‘lunatics’ made a certain amount of sense, and yet there’s just no way they can hope to function. Most of them were actually lucky to be there. For a mental hospital, this one was really nice, definitely not Nurse Ratched material.

Blue Asylum is a beautifully-written book that explores insanity and slavery, both of women and African Americans. Hepinstall walks familiar territory but weaves something new (I know I’m mixing my metaphors but I don’t care!). Her book will likely appeal to those who enjoy Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s Glow, especially those who don’t like dialect much, or The Yellow Wallpaper.

Favorite Quote:

“Her childhood had been magical, hours spent in ecstatic loneliness in the apple orchard, dreaming of foreign lands and wild adventures.. Everything was new, down to bird song and grass blades. By the time she had reached adulthood, the town around her was like a grandmother who had used up all her stories and now simply rocked on the porch. The same flowers, the same streets, year after year. She longed for someone more exotic. A prince. A pirate.”

2 responses to “Review: Blue Asylum”

  1. Heather says:

    Oooh, this sounds good! I love The Yellow Wallpaper (insert your shocked face here).

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