Book Review: Woman 99 by Greer Macallister

She’s only a number now.

When Charlotte Smith’s wealthy parents commit her beloved sister Phoebe to the infamous Goldengrove Asylum, Charlotte knows there’s more to the story than madness. She risks everything and follows her sister inside, surrendering her real identity as a privileged young lady of San Francisco society to become a nameless inmate, Woman 99.

The longer she stays, the more she realizes that many of the women of Goldengrove aren’t insane, merely inconvenient — and that her search for the truth threatens to dig up secrets that some very powerful people would do anything to kep.

A historical thriller rich in detail, deception, and revelation, Woman 99 honors the fierce women of the past, born into a world that denied them power but underestimated their strength.

What a read! In Woman 99, we first meet Charlotte Smith as the pampered daughter of a social-climbing family living in 1880s San Francisco. Daughters are trained from childhood in etiquette and comportment so they can eventually serve their purpose — helping their families climb higher through an advantageous marriage. Charlotte is proper and well-behaved and subservient to her mother’s wishes…

That was what all my education had been leading to. All the lessons and lectures. We were trained into ideal wives. Daughters were assets to be traded, like indigo, like hemp.

… but Charlotte’s sister Phoebe, according to their mother, is “unmarriageable”, the family disgrace.

While the term may not have been in use at the time, from the descriptions of Phoebe, she’s clearly bipolar. She has manic episodes, full of outrageous social behavior and flights of artistic fancy, then periods of dark depression during which she’s barely functional. In between the extremes, she has periods of near “normalcy”, and no matter what, Charlotte is devoted to her older sister, whom she loves with all her heart.

When Phoebe finally goes too far (and it’s not until later that we learn what this episode was about), she’s committed to Goldengrove, the Napa Valley asylum owned by the wealthy neighbors of the Smith family. Known as a “Progressive Home for the Curable Insane”, Goldengrove is promoted through glossy brochures and the social cachet of the Sidwell family. Still, Charlotte is terrified for Phoebe and her loss of freedom, and is determined to find a way to rescue her.

Charlotte concocts a scheme to get admitted to Goldengrove under an assumed identity, anticipating that she’ll quickly find Phoebe, announce who she is and that they’re going home, and that will be that. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. Charlotte is unprepared for the emotional and physical trials of being institutionalized, and is horrified to discover that finding Phoebe and getting back out again will not be as simple as she planned. Meanwhile, as Charlotte spends weeks in the asylum, she gets to know the other women of her ward, and learns some shocking truths — the advanced treatment methods that Goldengrove is so well known for have been replaced by cruelty and starvation, and many of the women there are perfectly sane… just problematic for their families or husbands or society in general.

It had claimed to be a place of healing, but instead, it had been a convenient holding place for inconvenient women, serving only the people outside it, never the ones within.

Woman 99 is powerful, upsetting, and incredibly descriptive, showing us through Charlotte’s struggles the restricted roles available to women, the way certain women could be so easily discarded by society, and the shocking lack of value a woman was deemed to have if she dared step outside society’s norms. It’s not at all surprising to see how terrible the conditions inside Goldengrove are. Treatment of mental health at the time varied widely from physician to physician and asylum to asylum, and while some of the treatment concepts may seem worthwhile, such as outdoor hikes or music, there are also terrible methods such as a “water cure” and restraints and isolation, not to mention rumors of women having their teeth removed because poor dental health was considered linked to madness.

Over the course of the book, I really came to care about Charlotte, and appreciated how much she risks for her sister and the other women she meets inside Goldengrove. Charlotte’s initial act of rebellion is spurred on by her love for her sister, but she really has no idea what she’s getting herself into or how much danger she’ll be in. She gains strength and determination through her ideal, and emerges as a woman who’s no longer willing to meekly accept her mother’s plans for her future.

I highly recommend Woman 99. It’s a terrific, inspiring, moving read. And hey, bonus points for the San Francisco setting!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Woman 99
Author: Greer Macallister
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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