REVIEW: Wildthorn by Jane Eagland
Dear Ms. Eagland,
I came across your debut novel while perusing the selections at NetGalley. The cover caught my eye, and the description piqued my interest. A young adult Victorian novel? About a young woman falsely committed to an asylum? Sign me up!
Louisa Cosgrove is on a journey to her new position. Her brother has sent her away from home to be the companion of the eldest daughter of a certain family. Unfortunately, she’s dropped off at an insane asylum instead. Whoops.
There, she’s committed but instead of Louisa Cosgrove, everyone calls her Lucy Childs. And the more she protests, the more everyone is convinced that she’s crazy. Louisa initially thinks there’s been a mistake, that she’s been mixed up with the real Lucy Childs. She soon learns, however, that someone specifically had her committed under a false name. Now not only must she find to escape the asylum, she needs to find out who had her committed and why.
Louisa is a bit of an odd duck by Victorian standards. The daughter of a doctor and a very proper mother, Louisa grew up loving science. This led to her father indulging her whims while her mother despaired because Louisa’s love of books, knowledge and experiments guaranteed that her daughter would never become a proper Victorian lady who could find herself proper Victorian husband.
This also caused a rift with her brother, Tom, who is jealous of Louisa’s brilliance and the attention she received from their father. The sentiment goes both ways since Tom is the apple of their mother’s eye who can do no wrong and because Tom is the son, he is the one who’ll inherit their father’s clinic. That in and of itself wouldn’t be a problem if Tom showed genuine interest in medicine but he doesn’t and this needles Louisa because she wants nothing more than to be a doctor despite the obstacles put in place by her gender.
The narrative alternates between Louisa’s present and the events that led to her current circumstances. Not only do we see the interactions within her immediate family, we also see her relationship with her aunt (her father’s sister) and her cousin, Grace. I will warn readers in advance that while the flashbacks are told in first person past tense, the current storyline is told in first person present. I just wanted to mention this since I know many readers dislike the latter.
For a novel that’s set in an asylum, during a time period when patients were treated very poorly and the conditions in such institutions were terrible, this book is surprisingly thin in terms of depth and nuance. That said, there are many twists and turns to Louisa’s quest to find out who committed her. But when we do finally find out, my reaction can be summed up in one word: Really? You went with that? I do like that it wasn’t the most obvious culprit but I do think that aspect was severely underdeveloped and lacking.
I also think certain things came too easy for Louisa. That may have contributed to my impression of overall thinness to the plot. Yes, conditions in the asylum were bad and bad things happened to her, but she never really struggled. There was one major setback but really just the one.
The one thing I did appreciate was the fact that Louisa’s sexuality was important to the story and her character arc but it wasn’t the main issue of the book. It’s true that Louisa spends part of the book fearing that the real reason she was sent to Wildthorn was because she was a lesbian — and I believe as readers we’re intended to reach that conclusion as well — but that was less important than her finding out who sent her to the asylum and lied to do so.
I think LGBT representation in YA novels is very important, just as I also think it’s important to have a variety of novels portraying LGBT characters — from “issue” novels to stories in which LGBT characters have adventures and being LGBT isn’t really the main point. I consider that diversity important. That’s why I really want to like this book because I think it strikes a nice balance between a young woman coming to grips with her sexuality and an unrelated mystery plot. I’m afraid, however, that the lack of meaty substance to the story prevented that from happening. C-