Though its hard to believe, in the not too distant past women could be placed in insane asylums by their husbands or families if they refused to conform to norms.
Women could be sent to psychiatric institutes indefinitely if a family member said a woman was not behaving as she should.
The novel begins by Iris learning she has a great Aunt she never knew about, Esme, who has been in a mental institution for sixty years.
Since Cauldstone is closing, the institution looks to Esme’s nearest relative to take her great Aunt into her home.
The central mystery that propels the narrative is how and why did Esme become confined. Esme who has an excellent memory searches her past for clues–when did her life go disastrously wrong? Did it go wrong on New Year’s eve in the 1930’s when she danced with an attractive boy? Or did her problems begin much earlier when the family lived abroad?
Iris, who owns her own vintage clothing shop, has her own share of problems. She has a complicated love life. She nearly does not take Esme into her home. Yet there’s something compelling about Esme.
Esme, who is immensely likeable for her openness and intelligence, recognizes Iris’ home as her family’s old home.
Deciphering clues as a detective would do, Esme learns the reason she was imprisoned along with new secrets that Kitty, her older sister, has been keeping.
O’Farrell takes a subject which could have been depressing and infuses with humor and telling details. The blazer, the photo of Iris’s father, the green wool blanket, the photo of two women–one standing and one seated–are all vital clues.
The ending comes as a surprise but well-justified in this well-plotted, psychological novel. Kathy Hepinstall’s Blue Asylum explores similar themes but is set in the civil war South.
If you liked this novel, you might also enjoy the short play, The Insanity of Mary Girard by Lanie Robertson.