I was entranced with the concept of this book from the first, and I could not put down the eARC once I got approved for it- it was one of those books that I just had to read from start to finish. It’s a dark corner of history in which women were treated horribly and put into asylums on the whims of their male “caretakers” and filed away with those that were truly ill or insane, and there was no separation or distinction between any of them. There was not anything that a woman could do about it: unless she had independent means and no male relatives, she was limited to what was chosen for her. Add in a serial killer, a new way of solving crimes, and an it all adds up to a brilliant gothic thriller.
Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum—but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace’s brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends—and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.
To start with, you dive head first into the 19th century asylum with Grace Mae, already deep into her “situation” and being looked down upon by the staff within- her “situation” being an unwedded pregnancy that her “loving” family need to hide in order to make her marriage-worthy. In the aslyum with her are a “forgotten” wife, women with sickness, and others whose crimes are simply being an affront to one of the men in their life. And being held over their heads is the ultimate threat- lobotomy.
And when Grace is at her lowest, the lobotomy specialist arrives, and sneaks her out to be his assistant in solving crimes with his newer scientific ways of thinking, ways that Grace catches onto quickly, often out-thinking her non-social doctor. When the twist appears at the end, it happens so suddenly and is so surreal, you have to catch your breath.
I liked the intertwining of feminism and history and facts throughout A Madness So Discreet, as well as the complexity of the characters. Readers get the complete feel of how women were treated during the time, and how easily they were discarded and dismissed and used at the whims of their male relatives and “betters” in society. It’s evident from Grace Mae’s condition, from her first encounters in the asylum and the way the head of the asylum threatens them. It’s evident in the way things are handled once Grace Mae is outside of the asylum and the way she has to behave, the way that her actions have to be quelled with everyone save Thornhollow. It’s evident especially with Thornhollow’s sister and her “heretic” beliefs, and the way the trial is handled.
The main and secondary characters are built with such complexity that you feel that they’re alive next to you, and that you could be next to them. You feel for them when the inevitable happens, and when the unexpected happens. That is a sign of wonderful writing.
What I also liked is the apt description of how few options were available for those who were actually sick, either with diseases that could be cured (but only if you had money) or with completely mental illnesses. The power that people had over others is insane, and what’s sobering is that not a lot has changed. People who seek treatment for mental illnesses are often misdiagnosed or mistreated by various personnel, whether doctors or others. You only have to look in the news at the current articles about HIV/AIDS drugs to see how arbitrary drug prices can be, and how much some are pushed up for profit; while the men in Grace Mae’s society were in absolute control, right now in medicine the drug companies are in complete control of medicine and therapies.
This is a very personal dislike, and it’s completely related to my personal reading style. Even though I have a very analytic mind, I’m more of a visual person and can easily picture scenes in my head. It’s one reason why I won’t read an incomplete series if it’s announced that the movie version is coming out; once they start announcing the cast I can’t get those actors out of my head, and I lose the vision of what the author was trying to accomplish. To that end, some of the vivid descriptions that actually make the book so wonderful for readers looking for something like this were a bit too much for me, so I just skimmed over them to where I could get back into the story, much like closing your eyes at the movies against the really gory bits.
There were a ton of moments that I could pick within the book, from the horrors of the asylum to the outcome of the trial, but the most jaw dropping moment in the book would have to be how Grace Mae gets justice and how Thornhollow reacts. I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t read the book, but OMG if you get there and you aren’t at least surprised, let me know.
I would put this solidly in teen/young adult collections, for high school ages. In age terms, that would be ages 14 and up. It could be aged down for those readers who can handle the topics broached within the book, but there are some that just won’t be able to handle some of them at that age. Librarian Note and possible trigger warning: there is past forcible rape within the book, sexual abuse, violence, medical descriptions, and some graphic descriptions. I’d pair A Madness So Discreet with Wildthorn by Jane England, which depicts the main character being committed for behavior unbecoming for a lady, or some of the more recent books featuring asylum hauntings depending on the intentions of the reader (Miss Peregrine series, Asylum series, etc).
This is one of those books that I really want the author to turn into a series. It did end with things pretty well tied up, and no loose ends, but I could happily read more adventures of Grace and Thornhollow solving crimes around the countryside in the infancy of criminology and forensics. They’re such a wonderful pair, and can really call to mind the modern television re-imaginings of Sherlock and Watson (BBC or CBS, take your pick), so I really want more adventures.