Date Published: April 10, 2012
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.0 out of 5
Book Summary: Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty, and property.
On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents— some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. Which of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris?
The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded “water treatment.” She must escape, but she has found new hope and love with Ambrose. Can she take him with her? If they make it out, will the war have left anything for them to make a life from, back home?
Blue Asylum is a vibrant, beautifully-imagined, absorbing story of the lines we all cross between sanity and madness. It is also the tale of a spirited woman, a wounded soldier, their impossible love, and the undeniable call of freedom.
My Thoughts: Blue Asylum is set during the time of the Civil War, a period in our history when women had virtually no rights and were treated as possessions. Iris Dunleavy, raised by loving parents who allowed her freedom to grow and a voice in her future, learns in a devastating way, how few rights she has as a woman. Iris described her childhood as ‘magical’, filled with dreams of her future adventures. When she reaches marrying age, Iris’ father encouraged her to marry a local boy. Iris wants to marry someone ‘exotic’ and exciting, not a boring local boy she’d known her whole life. Robert Dunleavy was ’exotic’ in Iris’ eyes. A plantation owner from Virginia, Robert caught Iris’ eye while he in town visiting his brother. Robert introduced himself to Iris‘ father. On his return to VA, he wrote Iris’ father many letters describing him as a man Iris’ father would be proud to have her marry. Iris was besotted. She and her mother convince Iris’ father to permit her to marry Robert. Sadly, Iris quickly discovers her new husband is not the man he purported to be.
Iris is one of several characters who tell their stories through a third-person narrator. The variety of voices make Blue Asylum an intriguing story with a lot of flavor. Iris is one of the main characters whose story is told. She’s a vibrant, strong and spirited young woman who’s also determined to do as she wishes. Iris has lived a carefree, uncomplicated life prior to now, in which she was used to getting her way. She also has, as a result, a rather naive view of the world and people. When things don’t go as she expects, Iris is often outspoken, especially for a woman, and even confrontational.
Robert‘s true colors came out shortly after the couple settled in Virginia, much to Iris’ dismay. He’s not the man Iris and her father thought she was marrying. When prices rise due to the Civil War, Robert becomes stingy and mean, taking things out on his slaves. Iris spoke up about this and things between she and Robert became strained. Problems escalated as Iris acted in ways that infuriated Robert. After a terrifying ordeal (which I won’t reveal here), Iris is tried in court for humiliating her husband and behaving improperly. She’s sent to Sanibel Asylum to be treated and made into a good wife. Iris’ complete story of her time on the plantation is finally revealed at the asylum. It’s eye-opening, heart-breaking and would cause most sane people to behave in unexpected ways.
Iris meets a host of captivating characters at the asylum. Dr. Cowell, the head of the asylum, calls all of the patients lunatics yet many don’t seem crazy so much as effected by hardship and painful occurrences in their lives. Ambrose Weller, for instance, is a Confederate soldier who returned home from the war in a terrible state. His story, which isn’t revealed in its totality until the end of the book, is shocking and unexpected. It made me gaspout loud. Ambrose’s behavior makes sense in light of what he’s been through. Iris and Ambrose have an intense connection and fall in love. I saw a side of Iris I didn’t like in her relationship with Ambrose. She’s immature, selfish and thoughtless in her love for him. Iris is so anxious and determined to be free of the asylum with Ambrose that she doesn’t think things through clearly or make a plan. When she finally sees things clearly, it's possibly too late for Iris and Ambrose.
Freedom is a main theme in Blue Asylum and a fascinating one. This book poses the question of what constitutes real freedom. Iris comes to a partial realization of what’s freedom by the end of the novel but not until she learns some tough life lessons. And, for Iris, freedom, if she even achieves it, comes at a great cost. Iris is consumed by the idea of returning to her childhood home. She now believes the place she was once so anxious to escape is where she will find freedom. But what about Sanibel where Ambrose prefers to stay. Could Iris and Ambrose be free on Sanibel? I think so. Ms. Hepinstall links several other themes, some more obvious than others, to freedom including slavery, love, death and sanity.
Ms. Hepinstall’s writing is compelling and captured my attention. The narrative is mesmerizing and I found it difficult to put down once I started reading. This became especially true as Iris and Ambrose’s stories were revealed to include some unexpected and eye-opening surprises. Ms. Hepinstall has a fundamental understanding of human nature and behavior that enhanced the life-like quality of her characters, even those not fully three-dimensional. Many of the scenes were described in a way that made me feel as if I was there. The vivid detail, for instance, with which Sanibel is described provided me with the image of a picturesque tropical paradise surrounded by a stunning blue sea and sky, framed by a white sandy beach dotted with beautiful pants, flowers and trees. I expected the island setting to contrast with the asylum building. Instead the asylum is elegant and calming with beautiful, tasteful decor and furniture that continues in each patient‘s private room.
I would have liked to know more about several of the characters, including Iris and Ambrose. I hoped, up until the very end of the book, to read more about Iris’ childhood, as well as her time as a married woman in Virginia. Similarly, with each new chapter, I hoped to learn more about the life of the gentle and reserved Ambrose. And I could say the same about several other characters. I would have happily read another 300 pages by Ms. Hepinstall. I highly recommend Blue Asylum to everyone but especially readers who love historical fiction.
See Kathy Hepinstall's Website and Blog
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review Blue Asylum and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an ARC of this book.