In 1885, the women of Paris are in danger. Not from unknown murderers. No, from their own husbands and fathers. For women who refuse to follow the restrictive culture of marriage, babies, and staying quiet, the Salpetriere asylum beckons. Some may truly be mentally ill. But most are just inconvenient. Once committed, the chance of freedom is limited to once per year. At The Madwomen’s Ball, where the beau mode meet the mad.
Louise first joined the Salpetriere at age 13. Her crime? Being assaulted by the uncle who took her in after her parents’ deaths.
Therese is a patient with a past. But in the asylum, where she has lived for over twenty years, she is like a house mother to the other, younger, patients. She is also the Tricoteuse, who knits shawls for the other patients.
Genevieve is the head of the nurses. She has been working at the asylum for over twenty years. During that she has lost her empathy for the patients. Her only love is her long ago deceased younger sister, Blandine. She has no man or children of her own.
Eugenie is the only daughter of a well-off family. She sees dead people, who speak to her. When she confides that fact to a loved one, she too is sent to Salpetriere.
The Madwomen’s Ball is an interesting merging of a real setting with fictional characters. Those characters are compelling. While reading, I wanted them all to achieve their dreams even while logically assuming that most would not. There is definitely a feeling of melancholia pervading the book. The language is languorous, which reflects the slower pace of both the time and place. Kudos to the translator who left just enough French to feel authentic—but not confusing to English readers.
Despite the slow pacing of literary fiction, this book should also appeal to thriller readers. Eugenie’s story is the main focus of the plot. Can she, who is clearly sane, get free of the asylum? It is similar to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest set in a different time and culture. It also has themes of feminism and spiritualism that resonant long after the last page is turned. 5 stars!
Thank you to The Overlook Press for providing the advanced review copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.