Book Review & Giveaway: Blue Asylum

Blue Asylum
Published By: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: April 10, 2012
Page Count: 288
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher
Audience: Adult - Historical Fiction

The Civil War era has long been a fascination of mine. As a child, I can remember racing downstairs each Christmas morning to see which Civil War tome would be waiting under the tree for me. When other kids were spending their summer vacation swimming and frolicking at the beach, I could be found touring rice plantations in the South Carolina lowcountry. In college, I put my passion to good use and focused my senior thesis on women's experiences during the Civil War in western North Carolina. Needless to say, I am still a Civil War junkie, so this book was a must read for me. I was attracted to the time period, the setting, and the gorgeous cover. Blue Asylum is a must read for fans of Civil War history and women's history.

The main character, Iris Dunleavy, is sent to an insane asylum on Sanibel Island, an island located on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I am sure many people who wind up in asylums claim that they are not insane, but its obvious from the start that Iris is actually telling the truth about her mental state. Her confinement is the result of her defiance of her husband and his way of life. As a prominent slave owner in Virginia, he convinces a judge that Iris is insane and needs to be put away from her own good. I found it appalling that during this time period, men controlled their wives in such horrible ways. Iris sums up the view of women in this time period when she says, "I am a woman, Doctor. I do not have a voice" (pg. 92). I can't imagine what it would be like growing up in a time period when I would not be allowed to speak my mind and my husband would determine my fate. The commentary in Blue Asylum on the treatment of women and the mentally insane was hard to stomach at times. However, I feel like this is valuable read that paints an accurate portrait of the time.

During Iris' stay on Sanibel, she meets a whole host of intriguing characters including a woman with an swallowing compulsion, a man who thinks his feet are too heavy to move, a woman who sees her dead husband, and a man who believes that Sunday is a wolf. In addition to these memorable characters, she also encounters Dr. Cowell, Wendell, and Ambrose. Dr. Cowell is the famed doctor who seeks to take those who enter the island as lunatics to the point where they can return to their former lives healed and rational once more. His preteen son, Wendell, is struggling with growing up on the island away from others his own age. The relationship between Dr. Cowell and Wendell was a fascinating one. Lastly, Ambrose is a Confederate veteran of the Stonewall Brigade who can't seem to shake the horrible memories that war has etched into his mind. 

Ambrose is an intriguing character who held my attention and heart from his first appearance. He is so broken. Throughout the novel, I kept comparing him to another literary Confederate veteran, Inman from Cold Mountain. Like Inman, the war has changed Ambrose in fearsome ways and stolen his happiness. However, both men find women who can see past their faults and haunted dreams to see their true nature. 

Kathy Hepinstall's writing is the sort that paint vivid mental images. I was blown away by her gorgeous metaphors and use of language. I couldn't keep myself from frantically scribbling quotations into my readers notebook as I made my way through this story. I love the images she conjures with her words, "A light breeze came through, just enough to take the fragrance of the spring flowers and make it sweep through everything like a collective wish" (pg. 48).

At its core, Blue Asylum is a haunting love story and a quest for redemption. There were moments were I laughed and even more where I cried. This is truly historical fiction at its finest.

One Last Gripe: I wish I knew for certain what Iris' future holds

My Favorite Thing About This Book: Iris and Ambrose's relationship

First Sentence: When Iris dreamed of that morning, the taste of blood was gone, and so was the odor of gunsmoke, but her other senses stayed alive.

Favorite Character: Iris

Least Favorite Character: The Matron - ugh, evil hag

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.

About the Author:  

Kathy Hepinstall is the author of three previous novels, The House of Gentle Men (a Los Angeles Times bestseller), The Absence of Nectar (a national bestseller), and The Prince of Lost Places. She is an award-winning creative director and advertising writer, whose clients have included top brands in American business. She grew up in Texas. 

Tuesday, April 10th: Man of La Book
Wednesday, April 11th: Veronica MD
Thursday, April 12th: Broken Teepee
Monday, April 16th: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Wednesday, April 18th: Life is Short. Read Fast.
Tuesday, April 24th: Reading Lark
Wednesday, April 25th: Hospitable Pursuits
Thursday, April 26th: My Book Retreat
Friday, April 27th: “That’s Swell!”
Monday, April 30th: Elle Lit
Tuesday, May 1st: The House of the Seven Tails
Wednesday, May 2nd: BookNAround
Thursday, May 3rd: Library of Clean Reads
Friday, May 4th: Book Journey
Wednesday, May 8th: Literature and a Lens

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  1. Excellent comparison to Inman. Hadn't thought of that, but I think it's a good one. Also, I was appalled at the treatment of women, but even more so when I think the patients at this asylum were treated better than most!

    Great review. Reading it brought this story right back to me. Thanks.

    1. I'm glad to see that my comparison of Ambrose with Inman rang true for you as well. They are certainly different in many respects, but the broken nature of both men really compelled me to think of them as being made from the same cloth. I loved them both so that isn't a negative thing at all.

  2. This book sound SO interesting! I love historical movies but have only read a few historical novels. I love the insane asylum angle. Thanks for reviewing this title. Adding it to my wishlist.

    1. I adore really well done historical fiction and this one fits the bill. It is a really interesting take on the Civil War era from a perspective I have never explored before. It made me want to do more research on the treatment of the mentally ill during this time period.

  3. Thank you for the great review. I really want to read this, and I hope I get a chance to do so soon!

    1. I would love to hear your thoughts when you get around to reading it, Twisty J.

  4. This book has been on my to read list for a while I always loved history as a kid too. I haven't really read many historical books yet but I think this sounds very interesting and I love the cover. Thanks for the great review.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts. I agree - the cover is pretty awesome. I want to frame it and put it on my wall. :)

  5. Wow this book sounds amazing. Thanks for the thorough review. I'm excited to read it now. :)

  6. I've been hearing a lot about this book. It sounds very good!

    1. Based on some of the other books you're entered to win in the past, this one seems like a good fit for you. I hope you read it and love it. :)

  7. her writing style sounds excellent. thank you for the review!

    1. Thanks for stopping by the nest! Hepinstall uses some truly gorgeous language in this one. I filled up several pages with quotations in my reader's notebook.

  8. I love an author whose use of description really pulls me into the setting of the story!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  9. Author Kathy Hepinstall uses a lot of symbolism in her novel and is sometimes a bit heavy handed with it when more subtlety is needed. The doctor's thirteen year old or so son plays a large part in the story and the parts involving him are particularly symbol laden. There is a lot of sadness in the book which is probably appropriate for a story set in a mental hospital during the Civil War. This is a quick read which will appeal to the intelligent reader of historical fiction who also has a fondness for some bittersweet romance.

  10. I've never been that fond of the Civil War era, but I AM endlessly fascinated by outdated medical practices, especially horrifying ones like most asylums, so this sounds right up my alley.

    Also: your senior thesis sounds really cool :)

  11. It's definitely sad that men could have so much power over women back then. I am really interested in Ambrose's healing techniques.

  12. Thank you for the review. It is cry interesting to me to see how little mental health has changed in 150 years....


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