Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review- Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

by Jane Eagland
Young Adult/Historical (Victorian)/Gothic/Lesbian Romance
Novel (352 pages)

By Guest Reviewer M.A.

Buy it Amazon
They strip her naked, of everything—undo her whalebone corset, hook by hook. Locked away in Wildthorn Hall—a madhouse—they take her identity. She is now called Lucy Childs. She has no one; she has nothing. But, she is still seventeen—still Louisa Cosgrove, isn't she? Who has done this unthinkable deed? Louisa must free herself, in more ways than one, and muster up the courage to be her true self, all the while solving her own twisted mystery and falling into an unconventional love . . .

Originally published in the UK, this well-paced, provocative romance pushes on boundaries—both literal and figurative—and, do beware: it will bind you, too.

I found Wildthorn's premise and cover art intriguing. The novel itself left me with very mixed impressions. The author built an interesting, informative storyline around a powerful, admirable heroine. Setting and atmosphere portrayed in beautiful language captivated me until I couldn't put the book down. This novel boasts all the earmarks of excellent gothic romance and throws in a pinch of social commentary. Eagland's descriptive writing is well above average, compelling and lyrical.

The plot unfolds via Louisa's struggles to survive the indignities of her seemingly fraudulent commitment to a lunatic asylum alternating with flashbacks portraying past events leading up to her institutionalization. Use of flashbacks often risks distracting a reader or losing his interest, but Wildthorn is a novel where this method works very well and packs quite an impact. Chapters separate flashbacks from the main narrative, so it’s hard to get “lost.” 

The author provides insights and hints as to why Louisa might have been diagnosed as mentally ill and who might have diagnosed her and committed her. Readers familiar with the Victorian era should have a better sense of the causes leading to Louisa's situation, but the dehumanization, loss of privacy, and other abuses Louisa faces or witnesses at Wildthorn are no less horrible for the knowledge. These points are meticulously well-researched, as are other aspects of Victorian culture. Period and setting are alive and well in Wildthorn.

Although I enjoyed this book in most respects and considered it well worth my time, I felt characterization and plotting suffered, particularly during the book's falling action and ending. I realize Louisa is supposed to be a "modern woman ahead of her time," but I found some of her attitudes and characterization improbable. It struck me as unlikely Louisa (daughter of a comfortable, middle-class Victorian family) would lack basic understanding of etiquette, the importance related to family social connections and "good breeding," and so on. Louisa is an intelligent, sensible female, and most highly intelligent people learn how to conform sufficiently to function in society. We are frequently shown how intelligent Louisa, an aspiring medical student, is, but at other times she sounds like a complete social moron. I believe Eagland intended to make Louisa more relatable to present-day readers, but it cost authenticity. Louisa doesn't sound like a genuine Victorian girl/woman. Even Victorian women pushing for suffrage and other social reform adhered to some degree to the social and cultural standards of their time. Instead, Louisa sounded like a 21st century girl trapped in the past, constantly bewildered and horrified by limitations placed upon her due to her gender.

I have mixed feelings about the romance subplot revealing Louisa's same-sex preferences. On one hand, I applaud Eagland for introducing interesting and very human lesbian characters. At the same time, Louisa's lesbianism struck me as a tad gratuitous and not relevant to the plot. The romance itself wasn't all that pertinent to the story and, for me, at least, Eliza's romantic attraction to Louisa cheapened her willingness to believe Louisa's story and aid in her escape. I also doubted Louisa's sincere feelings for Eliza; Louisa's situation as an inmate at Wildthorn was so horrible, it seemed to me she'd love anyone who showed her any kindness or compassion. Eagland did her best to portray realistic affection and attraction growing between Louisa and Eliza, but I just couldn't buy it given the circumstances.

The tight storytelling fell apart near the end when the mysteries behind Louisa's ordeal are revealed and the subsequent aftermath. Eagland seemed to go out of her way to absolve everyone involved of real blame. The responsible parties are all either stupid, jealous, misinformed, impaired by substance abuse, or a combination of the above. I liked that Louisa found forgiveness and prepared to go on with her life on her own terms, but I would have felt better about it if the principles in the conspiracy experienced real consequences directly related to their actions.

As for the final chapter and "happy for now" resolution to Louisa and Eliza's romance, I found it believable, but also sort of sad. Throughout the entire story, we witness Louisa's steadfast refusal to conform to society's limitations standing in the way of her dreams to study medicine, but she conforms to social expectation and conceals her love affair under a mistress/servant relationship. Again, it just sort of "pulled me out of the book." Louisa did exactly what many Victorian men (and, I suppose women) did when attracted to people "beneath them" socially.

I liked this book in terms of its overall style and its subject matter. The conclusion’s not perfect, but I enjoyed the journey and will read it again.

Heat Level:  0 – 1 (1 very brief, non-explicit love scene)

Grade: B+ (excellent writing quality, historically accurate, execution suffers a tad toward the end)


LVLM(Leah) said...

I feel very attracted to read this book. I probably wouldn't get the inconsistencies in time period issues, so that might not bother me as much as you. But as you say it's historically accurate outside of her independent mind, it sounds very intriguing.

I like that there's a mystery of sorts as well.

M. A. said...

Leah, this book is great. I mean really great. It's the first novel length work I sat up through the night reading in a long time.

I found the history very accurate, it was the protagonist's characterization that seemed a bit "overly modern."

I personally found the tension in the book very compelling. I admit I kept changing my mind concerning who was the "guilty party" who committed Louisa to the asylum. I don't know if other readers will feel that way. I don't read lots of myster/suspense books.

Overall, I just really liked Eagland's voice and her storytelling.