What She Left Behind ended up on my to read list thanks to my friend Mel. As I mentioned back in my review of Landline my participation in the CBR has inspired friends and coworkers to give me book suggestions out of the blue. I should have known when Mel’s parting words were “you should review this – oh and you are going to hate men at the end” that this may not be the most pleasant reading experience. It wasn’t. I don’t hate men at the end of this book so much as I hate clichés. ALL THE CLICHES, FOLKS.
We’re dealing with two timelines – one starting in 1929 with Clara Cartwright and another in 1995 with Izzy Stone. Each one’s story is an unrelenting tale of woe. Clara has been locked up in an insane asylum because she refuses to marry the man her wealthy father picks out for her. Oh, and she’s pregnant and the baby daddy is her poor Italian immigrant whom she met at the Cotton Club. Izzy is a child of the foster care system who is on her fourth foster family since her grandmother passed away. And why was she living with her grandmother you may ask? Because her mother killed her father with a shotgun blast to the head. As the basic details of the plot came together my response was:
Each of the protagonists is subjected to the worst their particular scenarios have to offer. Clara is institutionalized needlessly for being in the position of being a female whose father has the final say. She is subjected to ice water baths, insulin comas, solitary confinement for months at a time, and is chained to her bed. She also has her baby taken from her and SPOILER her boyfriend is killed while trying to rescue her from the facility. She is in the institution for 60 years. END SPOILER. Izzy witnessed her father’s dead body in his bed, has gone through the clichéd foster care wringer, and is bullied at school in ways that reminded me of Christopher Pike novels, has been abused, and is in constant fear of being turned out by her current foster parents once she turns 18. Oh, and I haven’t even listed all of the suffering.
So why did I keep reading this book? Because I needed to get the ending, I knew from INCREDIBLY early on where Wiseman was sending us – she hasn’t apparently met a foreshadowing method she didn’t want to apply to her writing – and I needed to get to it. I needed SPOILER Clara to meet her daughter and Izzy to get adopted even though she’s legally an adult at 18 END SPOILER. And to get there I swam through the same descriptive devices (seriously EVERYONE vomits when they are nervous in both timelines and EVERYTHING smells like urine, feces, and bleach during Clara’s timeline. Oh and everyone’s legs turn to rubber) to get there.
I can’t in good conscience recommend this book to you, but I think the book that Wiseman refers to as her main research book and which serves as a catalyst for how Izzy and Clara’s stories are intertwined – The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny – might be of interest to those of you who would like to know more about mental health care in the past 150 years in the States. I, unfortunately, already knew many of the details of the type of facility described in What She Left Behind and was also gifted with the experience of being annoyed at the compression of history to get ALL the horrors of mental health care into one story.
Read something else.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.