The Painted Bridge: A NovelThe Painted Bridge: A Novel by Wendy Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Newlywed Anna Palmer, haunted from childhood by dreams and visions of a drowning boy, is committed to the Lake House Asylum for women by her husband, mere weeks after their marriage.  He uses her sudden trip to help the victims of a shipwreck as his excuse. What normal woman in 1859 would do such a thing without first asking her husband's permission?

Before we meet Anna, however, we are confronted with the inverted image of another patient, Lizzie Button. Dr. Lucas St. Clair is photographing the patients and hoping that the new art form will form the basis of a reliable, scientific method of diagnosing madness.

It soon becomes clear that the director, Querios Abse, has no insight into his own troubled family, and not a trace of good intentions towards his patients. Neither do most of the caretakers, whose behaviors range from moderate kindness to stark brutality. While some of the patients are ill, others have been dumped by families who found them inconvenient. Querios's own daughter is starving herself to death while quoting from "Aurora Leigh" and trying to emulate a carnival attraction named The Fasting Girl, who supposedly lives on "drops of dew, brushed onto her lips with a feather."

While the reader never questions Anna's sanity, others do. The treatments she endures are both horrific and historically accurate: purges, chairs that whirl, isolation. They nearly unhinge Anna, who wonders anew at the visions and dreams that have given others license to support her husband's decisions. But who wouldn't begin to lose faith, imprisoned in a torture chamber and seemingly forgotten by the world?

I am giving this book four-and-a-half stars instead of five, only because the villains are depicted without a touch of nuance, and at least one major character is a touch too saintly. But I do, most definitely, recommend it as a story with atmosphere, ideas, insight, and a plot that will keep you engrossed.

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