Charlotte Smith‘s sister, Phoebe, has always been subject to rages of temper and bouts of giddiness. Charlotte has always considered that a facet of her personality and is utterly shocked when her parents choose to send Phoebe off to the secretly infamous Goldengrove asylum as Charlotte’s wedding approaches – something Charlotte blames herself for.
Charlotte adores her sister and cannot envision life without her. Though she’s been trained to be a proper society miss, the daughter of a shipping magnate who’s been betrothed to a loathsome man at her family’s behest, she’s dissatisfied with the world around her, and is exhausted by having to be quiet, good and reserved. So she decides it’s her duty to rescue Phoebe from Goldengrove, which she effects by faking a suicide attempt. Convinced she can use her father’s name and influence to rescue her sister from the clutches of the asylum, she learns the ropes but finds herself mired in its social strictures instead. As she climbs her way up the ladder of authority, searching all the while for the elusive Phoebe, she remembers her love affair with the handsome Henry – the man she’s truly in love with, the brother of her fiancé. Thoughts of him give her the mental strength to carry on. Like her heroine, Nellie Bly, Charlotte is going to have to use her wits, her strength and keep her hopes and faith paramount if she wants to find Phoebe.
Shannon Dyer and Lisa Fernandes read Woman 99, and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Lisa: This book was fabulously entertaining and very well researched, but I did have a bit of a problem with the way the story was told. How did you like it, Shannon?
Shannon: I didn’t find the actual storytelling to be a problem. I love the idea of someone going undercover, so to speak, so I was fascinated by Charlotte’s journey inside the institution. I was hooked into the story pretty quickly, and I honestly hated to put the book down. What did you find troubling?
Lisa: I didn’t find it troubling exactly, but I did find the telling a bit pat. Charlotte was interestingly complex. On one hand, she seemed to be using her sister’s imprisonment as an excuse for rebellion and adventure; on the other hand, she was truly dedicated to Phoebe and protecting her, sacrificing herself to an almost alarming level in the name of their love. How did you feel about her?
Shannon: I found Charlotte pretty easy to relate to for the most part. I’m not sure she always made the best decisions, but her heart was definitely in the right place which counts for a lot with me. She could sometimes be a bit too idealistic, but I’m guessing that had a lot to do with her privileged upbringing.
Lisa: This is primarily a story about sisterhood, and Phoebe is just as complex as Charlotte. What did you think of her?
Shannon: Phoebe is a character I wish I could have known better. We see her almost exclusively through Charlotte’s lens, so I found it difficult to get a firm grip on what kind of person she actually was.
Lisa: That’s interesting; I think Charlotte had a tendency to see Phoebe as helpless because of her (unnamed) bipolar disorder, which should have provided more conflict – while Phoebe saw herself as anything but helpless, anything but a victim. Moving on, Charlotte’s love for her true love, Henry Stilwell, is interestingly expressed (She wants to touch his beard). How did you feel about Henry’s relationship with Charlotte? Would it be any better than the horrible one that might have been with George?
Shannon: It’s obvious from the very beginning that Charlotte adores Henry, but there were times I found myself wondering if she actually loved him, or if she was in love with the idea of love in general. I definitely think life with Henry would be preferable to life as George’s wife, since George obviously had some issues that run deep.
Lisa: I think a choice Henry made at the very end spoke to his character, but there really was a sense that Charlotte might not be as compatible with him as she thinks. Speaking of which, the speed at which Charlotte reaches an epiphany about her social position and class distinction felt rather speedy – perhaps because she was already aware of the differences between the classes and sexes very early in the book. In fact, the pacing overall was a problem at times for me. The book also makes some rather pat observations about the pre-feminist world that has ensnared these women and dumped them in the asylum. What do you think about how the book delivered its message?
Shannon: I would have liked Charlotte to take more time coming to what is, in my opinion, the most important part of the book’s message. It’s clear she led a pretty sheltered life up to this point, so I struggled a bit to understand how she could have such a deep understanding of issues of social class. She does slip up a time or two, but she realizes her mistake quickly and recovers well. I’m just not sure how realistic that kind of social awareness would have been for someone in Charlotte’s position.
Lisa: The girls’ mother’s intensely personal losses have left her obsessed with keeping her daughters safe, something that I found to be highly relatable; naturally this resulted in the girls feeling stifled and rebelling. What did you think of her, what little we saw of her?
Shannon: Mrs. Smith is one of those mothers who tries way too hard to keep her daughters from any harm. I can understand a mother wanting to do this, but Mrs. Smith took it to the extreme. She was also far too focused on what her friends and neighbors would think about various things, something that drastically impeded her ability to be a good and supportive mother.
Lisa: There are heavy allusions to Greek mythology woven throughout the text. What did you think of that?
Shannon: I’ve always been fascinated by mythology, and the Greeks are especially interesting. The idea of naming the various hospital wards after the nine muses was great. Of course, the treatments that went on in those wards was not so great, but that’s a completely different subject.
Lisa: The other women in the asylum are just as different as Charlotte and Phoebe. Did you like any of the inmates? Feel any sympathy for the asylum workers?
Shannon: I found myself drawn most to Esme and Jubilee. Both are courageous, but in very different ways. Jubilee is loud and brash, while Esme seems content to keep to the shadows.
Lisa: Jubilee was my favorite too! So, what’s your final grade? I’m giving this a B-; involving, engrossing character work, impeccable research, beautiful statements about love and sisterhood – but the big messages of the book have been done before, and better.
Shannon: I’m going higher than you with a B+. I flew through this book and was never bored, but Charlotte’s idealism and the underdeveloped nature of the romantic elements keep this from DIK territory. I’m definitely interested in seeing what else this author has to offer.