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The Books of March: A Feigned Madness, The Dutch House, Twilight Empress, and The Barbizon

A Feigned Madness, by Tonya Mitchell, Cennan Books/Cynren Press (2020)

I have to tip my hat to Mitchell for taking on this story. It is not a low-risk endeavor to write a historical novel about a character whose story has already been examined by many other authors.

Elizabeth Cochrane is Nellie Bly, the famous female muckraker of the late 19th Century, a time that introduced American readers to yellow journalism and investigative reporting—sometimes one and the same, sometimes a derogatory broad brush applied to articles by foes and fans per their biases. Seeking acceptance as a serious journalist at a time when women in newspapers were confined to the “women’s pages” and society news, Bly takes on an assignment to go undercover into the notorious Blackwell Asylum to investigate its abuses against its women inmates.

Blackwell is no asylum, as the term is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “an institution offering shelter and support to people who are mentally ill.” It is at best a place to warehouse women whose parents or husbands want to rid themselves of, regardless of the veracity of the diagnoses. At worst, it is a torture chamber, a dungeon, a prison managed by sociopaths. Bly gets into the asylum by faking amnesia and a bit of paranoia. Although it is her ambition to get in, stay for 10 days and get out to tell the story and win her spot on the newspaper, the novel plays the reader’s support for her ambition against the hope she would be found out and sprung from the hunger, cold, brutality and mortal danger of the place long before 10 days are up.

A minor subplot about a less than historically certifiable relationship with a fellow journalist at times intrudes, taking away more than it adds, I believe. Granted, this is a story about a young woman. And it is arguably true that even the most career-oriented and ambitious women of the time were also obsessed with the dream of finding a man and getting married. But the strength of the novel is in its depiction of the abysmal treatment of the mentally ill in general, and women in particular. Since most journalists ply their trade above cover, not under it—even famous ones, I came away thinking this is a great novel about the shame of institutions like Blackwell, and not so much about the history of women in journalism.

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, Harper (HarperCollins) 2019

I don’t know that I have ever read works by anyone who writes a better sentence or paragraph than Ann Patchett. I was an early fan of Bel Canto, and have continued to read her books since, largely for lessons in style.

The Dutch House doesn’t disappoint when it comes to demonstrating this talent. I can’t imagine that anyone could report that they didn’t find the book well-written. I’m guessing that is why 60% of her nearly 20,000 ratings on are five-star. I have not read any of the reviews attached to those ratings, because I want to read books and write reviews without allowing my reaction and opinion to be influenced by others. So, I cannot be sure why this book was so highly rated. My guess is the exquisite writing.

But a good sentence does not a good novel make. Thanks to the flawless prose, I found it easy to keep reading this novel from front to back in a couple of short days. But in the end, I found much else about it disappointing. Largely, I believe my lack of love comes from the structure and the rather milquetoast narrator.

First: the structure. SPOILER ALERT for this paragraph. SKIP if you want. Patchett spends about seven-eighths of the book tightly weaving together the lives of Danny, the narrator, and Maeve, his older sister. They spend hours of their adolescent and adult lives talking and sharing, parked in front of the house they were ejected from by an evil stepmother. They support each other, worry about each other, rush to each other’s side for any and all emergencies and semi-emergencies. But then, in the final eighth-or-so of the book, Patchett spends very little time unwinding that filial tapestry once it is rent.

While I have not read other reviews, several reading friends had told me they thought the book ended too quickly. I had argued—before reading the book—that many books come under that criticism, which often isn’t fair. A climax is supposed to come at the near end of the book, and the denouement should be short. But now I understand why they were feeling that way. It’s that too much is created that is too quickly abandoned without a decent examination of the impact of that destruction. I feel that the end of the book did not need to be longer. It needed to be more focused on the relationship that occupied most of the book. What was built up should either have been supported, or we should have seen what happens when it falls down.

My second criticism is easier to explain. The narrator, Danny, is both boring and whiny. He never acknowledges what his sister has done for him without whining that he wishes she hadn’t. When he does acquire some agency and chooses his own profession in life, his whining is then redirected largely at his similarly unsympathetic wife. I found it tiring to spend time with Danny AND his wife, and I wished the story had been told from Maeve’s point of view. She was a far more interesting character whose desire for vengeance and denial of her own needs are too little explored.

If Patchett gives lessons in writing that I could afford, I’d sign up. But if she offered lessons in story, I’m not sure I’d come.

The Barbizon: The Hotel that Set Women Free, by Paulina Bren, Simon & Schuster (2021)

The Barbizon Hotel, a hotel for women only, opened in 1929 in New York to board women who came to the city to seek their fortune as artists, actors, models, writers and secretaries. The book has its share of celebrity gazing: Sylvia Plath, Grace Kelly, Betsey Johnson, Joan Didion, Ali McGraw, Liza Minelli, and many other famous women all stayed there at one time. But it’s also about the women who were brought to New York and the Barbizon by Mademoiselle as “guest editors” each summer (even though they were chosen for their good looks and 35-24-36 figures as much as for their talents); about the women who came to the city after graduation from college to get secretarial certificates from Katharine Gibbs; and about the women who became (now nameless) models with the Eileen Ford agency.

But more than a book about famous women and institutions, The Barbizon also details the friendships and competition among women and the degree to which the (mostly) young women were intent on either attracting a man or steering clear of them. Especially from WWII on, whatever the women’s ambitions were, the endgame was nearly always about finding the future man in their lives (and rarely the current one) and the home and family they would build with him.

The strongest, most compelling theme of the book is the way the world shrunk for women after WWII—suddenly, women were expected to leave the workforce to allow men (breadwinners) to have the jobs and how marriage and motherhood replaced careers as acceptable paths for women. Some states even tried to forbid women to work out of the home. Author Bren compares the relative freedom and ambition of the 1920s-30s flappers and WWII Rosie the Riveters to the oppression and lowered expectations of the post-war women of the 1950s, which redefined women’s place as picket-fenced suburbs, rearing babies and supporting their career-minded husbands. This was expected of them even after they got college educations. I was born in 1953 and came into adulthood in the much more feminist world of the 1970s and beyond. This narrative made me realize how regressive the 1950s and most of the 1960s were and why Sylvia Plath killed herself.

It is fascinating, well-written, and a great choice for book club discussions.

Twilight Empress, by Faith L. Justice, Raggedy Moon Books (2017)

Twilight Empress is the kind of historical novel that dedicated fans of historical fiction will find satisfying and impressive. With exquisite attention to political and military history, this novel weaves together many of the important political events of the fifth century and the author’s interpretation of what living through them was like for this one remarkable and resilient woman, Galla Placidia, daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius, half-sister to the much-maligned (for good reasons) Emperor Honorius, and eventual empress in her own right. It is a rich tapestry of both historical research and vivid imagination.

Placidia escapes from humid, bug-infested and swamp-delimited Ravenna to return to her native Rome, leaving behind her incompetent and poultry-obsessed brother who rules the western half of the Roman Empire. Honorius had just assassinated the half-barbarian military leader, Stilicho, whose military brilliance and strategic talents were barely holding back the hordes of migrants attempting to enter the empire. Without Stilicho to negotiate with the Goths, Honorius leaves Rome nearly defenseless, and the city is sacked by the great Gothic King, Alaric, who captures Placidia, thinking she might be just the bargaining chip he needs to wrest settlement and support from Honorius.

However, after months of traveling up and down the Italian peninsula with the Goths, Placidia falls in love with Ataulf, who has succeeded Alaric as king of the Goths, and marries him. With Placidia as his advisor and, to some respect, his insurance policy against aggression by the Romans, Ataulf leads the Goths into southern Gaul, where they become federates of the Roman Empire, pledging to protect southern and western Gaul from pirates and brigands. But when Ataulf dies, Placidia is dragged back to Ravenna and married to Constantius, Honorius’s patrician and military leader. Despite her animosity toward her new husband, they have two children, and when Honorius dies, she becomes regent for her young son and empress in her own right. Through this period, there is much plague, disease, war, bloodshed, intrigue and conspiracy, all which Placidia witnesses, and which helps the reader understand the mess that the Roman empire had become before it falls to the Huns, the Ostrogoths and the Lombards.

The story Justice tells is largely true, only modified at times to make the telling less cumbersome, however, casual readers may find it dense and overly packed with characters. But for those already somewhat familiar with late antiquity and the decline of the Roman Empire, it will be both satisfying and enlightening.

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