Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Review: Wildthorn [2009]

On the surface, Jane Eagland's Wildthorn was tailor-made for me. After all, during my brief career as an academic (ask me nicely and I will show you the vestigial master's degree in English Literature, assuming I can locate it) I used to have aspirations of a Victorian nature. The cover features a corset close-up, and the book's tagline promises that while "Treachery locks her away. Love is the key." Wildthorn made it to the top of my list as soon as I discovered through a review that this redemptive love was of the girl-girl variety. I can't help my biases!

Although she believes that she's on her way to a new life as a companion after the untimely death of her physician father, Louisa Cosgrove instead finds herself locked away in a Victorian mental institution, Wildthorn Hall. She assumes that the reason is her "unnatural" attraction to her cousin Grace, although at first she presumes that her imprisonment is simply a mistake. After an abortive escape attempt leads to her transfer to one of the more unpleasant wards, Louisa finds love and salvation in the form of one of the prison guards, Eliza.

Grade: B-

As I said, this should have been the perfect book for me, but somehow it wasn't. I didn't love the mix of present tense for the current scenes and the length and volume of the flashbacks. Although Eagland explores some great issues--women's rights, love between women, sexual abuse, the experience of those condemned to live their lives in frighteningly mismanaged institutional settings--it sometimes felt more like an academic discussion than a novel. I desperately wanted to buy in to the romance between Louisa and Eliza, but I was lukewarm at best after it seemed to develop almost overnight.

One thing I did enjoy was Eagland's characterization of Louisa's drive to become a doctor, which was the motivation both for her "acting-out" behaviors and for her family's nervousness about her suitability for society. It was somehow not surprising that she was institutionalized not for the more obvious "sin" of being attracted to women, but for daring to dream of helping people in a way that was inappropriate both for her sex and her station.

ETA: I'm probably being hard on Wildthorn because I had such high expectations--because it does hit several areas that I dearly love. It was a good book! I enjoyed it. I just wanted it to be MORE, I guess. I look forward to reading the next lesbian Victorian YA novel, which hopefully will be written soon.

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