Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith

Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith

Date Published: November 16, 2011
Publisher: Fiction Studio Books
Pages: 194
ISBN: 978-1936558186
Genre: Health; Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Summary: Set in the turbulent 1970s when Patty Hearst became Tanya the Revolutionary, Hystera is a timeless story of madness, yearning, and identity. After a fatal accident takes her father away, Lillian Weill blames herself for the family tragedy. Tripping through failed love affairs with men and doomed friendships, all Lilly wants is to be sheltered from reality. She retreats from the outside world into a world of delusion and the private terrors of a New York City Psychiatric Hospital. Unreachable behind her thick wall of fears, the world of hospital corridors and strangers become a vessel of faith. She is a foreigner there until her fellow patients release her from her isolation with the power of human intimacy.

How do we know who we really are? How do we find our true selves under the heavy burden of family and our pasts? In an unpredictable portrait of mental illness, Hystera penetrates to the pulsing heart of the questions.

My Thoughts:  Lilly has been voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric ward following a failed suicide attempt. She’s a smart woman, enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College.  But life is difficult and debilitating.  Overwhelming feelings of guilt regarding her father’s stroke and pressure from her clingy, critical mother have been troubling Lilly for quite a while.  The final straw is the breakup with her boyfriend, Mitchell after Lilly wasn’t comfortable having sex with him.  Lilly started experiencing delusions and hallucinations of a sexual nature brought on by shame about her body and sexual issues.  These feelings resulted in an imagined physical manifestation of the shame on her body that both upset and calmed Lilly.  She complained of pain between her legs, related to the imagined physical manifestation, while in the emergency room. When a nurse tried to examine her, Lilly became hysterical and had a severe breakdown, ending up in a quiet room on the locked psychiatric ward. There was nothing unusual found at the source of her pain. The doctors believe Lilly suffers from fear of intimacy and other issues of fear.

The majority of this book is told from Lilly’s point of view through a third-person narrator. The narrative is confusing and chaotic, especially early in the book, because we’re, essentially, inside Lilly’s mind experiencing what she thinks as she does. The narrative is also extremely effective and powerful since we’ve been given a front-row seat to Lilly’s thoughts and memories. It’s mesmerizing to read about Lilly’s memories of life with her mother when she was young and how she’s been strongly impacted by the things her mother said to her even when she was very young. Lilly struggles with issues about her mother and guilt that mainly revolve around Lilly’s desire to be free of her mother’s control. She’s searching for her own identity but Lilly doesn’t feel safe out in the world to discover who she is. Lilly also has difficulty trusting others and fears letting others know the real Lilly and what she wants from life. It’s a captivating and amazing experience to read about each day from Lilly’s point of view. It’s also confusing and disjointed, further emphasizing the mental illness at the center of this story but also making it difficult, sometimes, to understand what‘s happening in the book.

I’ve thought a lot about this book and Lilly since I read it. I’ve also returned to the book and reread a few chapters. I think it’s a book that benefits from rereading because there isn’t a straight-forward meaning to many of the passages. Lilly isn’t a character who it’s easy to relate to or identify with but she is dealing with some issues familiar, at least to a degree, to many women, particularly those issues involving mother-daughter relationships. Shame regarding our bodies, sexual feelings and behavior are also issues that are not uncommon to many people. Reading about how Lilly has been impacted by life is occasionally frightening because these familiar issues are partly responsible for driving Lilly mad, making her feel so insecure and unsafe in society that she tried to exit it. A few of the chapters, along with Lilly’s struggles, are also a little tiring and aggravating because it’s not always easy to understand where Lilly’s coming from or what she’s thinking and feeling. That’s probably due to my own lack of experience or understanding of mental illness and the unusual framework of this book.

Leora Skolkin-Smith has written a fascinating novel about one woman’s descent into mental illness and her struggle to feel whole. This is a haunting and poignant look at Lilly’s struggles. My heart went out to Lilly and I would have liked to know her better but the nature of her illness and this book makes that understandably impossible. I felt a range of emotions while reading this book and I, ultimately, rooted for Lilly to find herself and the feeling of security she longs for. I haven’t read many books about mental illness but Hystera has piqued my interest in reading some other books about struggling with mental illness and madness. I recommend this book to anyone interested in mental illness and people fighting to overcome it.

Leora Skolkin-Smith website.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this book and to Fiction Studio Books and Leora Skolkin-Smith for a copy of Hystera


  1. Amy, this is a meaningful, and quite beautiful review and I thank you from all of me. I also read your blog and I was just hoping HYSTERA would speak to you because I know you've suffered some painful experiences,too..I found what you've written about your own struggle with illness so honest and brave and complex...a deep pleasure to share this with you...

    -Leora Skolkin-Smith

  2. Something about institutions has always fascinated me and when you combine it with the 1970s, it's even more intriguing. What an honest and thoughtful review and I look forward to picking it up soon.

  3. Hm, I like the fact that the character has stayed with you and you've felt compelled to re-read parts but I'm not sure I'd like the fact that some of the passages don't have obvious meaning.

  4. I had a very different experience with this book, but am glad that you liked it. Your review was deeply reflective and very insightful. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. Sounds like a challenging but ultimately interesting read.

  6. This sounds like an interesting book, but it also sounds like it might be confusing at times, which is understanding given the character's mental state. Great review!

  7. LEORA SKOLKIN-SMITH: Thank you! It was a privelege to read Hystera and I'm still thinking about Lilly.

    Thank you for your comments about my health problems. I think I connected with Lilly because, although my struggles are different from hers, I understand her pain, insecurity and concern about becoming close to others both in friendship and with men.

    Thank you for reading my blogs... I plan to continue with my other blog, I'm just organizing my thoughts and figuring some things out.

    Thank you! Hystera is a fascinating book. Lilly is an intriguing character dealing with pain and insecurity from problems with several relationships.

    I found out since I read the book that in the 1970s, medication wasn't provided to patients in the hospital for depression and other mental health problems except in the most severe cases.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this book when you have a chance to read it.

  9. BERMUDAONION: Hystera is definitely different than a lot of books because we're experiencing everything from Lilly's point of view. As a result, some passages were kind of inexplicable but I thought made sense given Lilly's situation.
    It's not the easiest book to read but I thought it was worth it.

  10. ZIBILEE: Your review gve me a lot to think about. I haven't read many books about mental health issues...although it's a great idea in terms of possibly helping me understand some of my family members better.
    Thank you for your comments :o)

  11. JENNERS: A very astute comment, you hit the nail on the head!

  12. ANNA: Exactly, it was very interesting and, at times, confusing. Sometimes I didn't really know what a specific passage was referring to. But Lilly was in the midst of a mental breakdown and dealing with some serious mental health issues. In some ways it was remarkable when her intelligence and reasoned shined through the muck.

  13. I haven't read many books dealing with mental illness but the topic is definitely intriguing.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this one overall. Thanks for being on the tour!