Friday, January 15, 2016

Bookshelf: What She Left Behind

A friend of mine, who loves TV and books as much as I do, told me to read Ellen Marie Wiseman's WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND months ago. Both she and her mother had raced through it and she knew I'd like it. So I ordered it back in November and left it atop my TBR pile, which seems to be pretty standard for me. I almost brought it on vacation with me but I'm glad I didn't. It wasn't what I would want to read while relaxing on a tropical beach.

WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND is two stories. Clara, in the 1920's is young and in love. With the wrong man. Bruno is a working class, Italian immigrant while Clara is the daughter of one of Manhattan's wealthiest couples and expected to marry to further their family status. When she stands up for herself, saying she wants to go to college and marry whomever she chooses her parents send her off to an asylum.

Meanwhile in present day, Izzy begins her senior year at a new school, living with new foster parents. Her mother shot her father when she was little, for reasons she doesn't know, and she has spent the past decade wondering if she will go crazy like her mother. Her new foster parents curate a museum and have been given permission to go through belongings left behind by patients at the now abandoned Willard Insane Asylum. With the constant fear of going crazy herself, Izzy hesitantly delves into the crumbling belongings trying to understand how the patients ended up in such a scary place. When she begins reading Clara's diary the two stories begin to merge. 

What's interesting is that I was three-quarters of the way through the book before I realized it could potentially be considered YA. Both women are on the cusp of adulthood but I think the book was categorized as Literary Fiction. Regardless of age, I feel like anyone would be able to read WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND and relate on some level to the characters.

In all honesty, I had a lot of trouble reading this book. Not because of the writing - that was beautifully done. It had to do with the asylum. I have this recurring nightmare in which something horrible happens and though I scream and cry and try to get people to listen to reason no one does (often they laugh and brush me off) and I grow smaller and weaker until I give up and dissolve into a pile of tears. I've been thinking a lot about this as I read the book, wondering if it's a female thing - feeling like your words, your self, isn't taken seriously, that you don't matter. And the idea of a man - your father or husband - committing you to an insane asylum because you wanted a divorce or stood up against abuse or were a financial burden, as was often the case back then, terrifies me. That a woman was degraded to nothing, treated as an invalid, all her rights taken away, and locked up for the remainder of her life, scares the absolute shit out of me. So much injustice fills our country's history and continues to today and that upsets me greatly. But as much as Clara's story upset me, I think it's important that people read about how perceived mental illness was handled from the 1800's through the 1960s.

Anywho, it's not a light read but it's a really well done story and I would recommend it to anyone - male, female, young, old. And now I move on to BIG, LITTLE LIES, by Liane Moriarty which ten pages in already feels so completely different from the previous subject matter. I heard it's a bit juicy so I'm excited to get into it. 

Happy reading!

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