By Ann Leary
Publication Date: May 31, 2022
1927 – Mary Engle feels her life is finally about to start when she accepts a secretarial position at the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. Not only is she going to be out from under her aunt’s thumb, but her new employer is one of the first women in the US to become a psychiatrist and a role model for women aspiring to make something of their lives. From the beginning, Mary finds the job fulfilling and makes new friends, not to mention beginning her first romance.
But when she sees a childhood friend, Lillian, is an inmate at the orphanage, Mary has to question how the girl wound up there. She trusts the doctor’s methods, but surely there was a mistake made? She remembers Lillian as slightly reckless and daring, but cerainly not feebleminded.
Even as Mary moves closer to her boss’s personal orbit and promises are made that will enhance Mary’s future, Lillian puts pressure on her to plan an escape. Who should Mary trust – the respected psychiatrist or the girl she’s known since childhood? And if normal girls are being held at Nettleton Village against their will, what will it cost Mary to make the truth known?
This story covers a lot of ground – loyalty, shared history, morals, ethics, bias, abuse, and courage. I applaud the author for tackling the subject of eugenics, a tricky topic to present to a modern audience. Not only does a historical fiction author need to remain true to the time period, events, and social mores, but she/he needs to present them so that a modern audience understands them. In this, I think the author was successful.
However, despite having high hopes for this novel, it’s destined to get shelved alongside several other books that I didn’t like as much as I wanted to. For me, that decision lies with Mary’s portrayal. She endured a childhood raised in an orphanage and abuse by her uncle, then lived several unhappy years with another relative. However, I never got the sense of how that affected her on a psychological level. She was naive, which was reasonable as she was a sheltered seventeen-year-old at the start of the story, but I never felt I understood her or what she believed in. She seemed to bend whichever way the wind was blowing. The doctor states something – of course, the doctor is brilliant and everything is above board. Her boyfriend questions something, and Mary suddenly sees the same situation with new eyes. Until the doctor speaks again. I could never get a grasp on her, which was a shame since this was written in first person and there were missed opportunities to dig deep in her head and share her innermost thoughts and feelings with the reader.
Since I never connected with Mary, the pacing felt a bit slow until the last third or so of the book. Then things picked up and became much more interesting but it wasn’t enough to make the book shine.
In the end, I rated this novel 3 stars. ⭐⭐⭐
Thank you to NetGalley and Scribner for providing the Advance Reader Copy of this book. This review is my honest and voluntary opinion.
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