Publisher: Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, Ballantine Books
Date of publication: July 11th, 2023
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Mental Health, France, Mental Illness
A young woman with amnesia falls under the influence of a powerful doctor in Paris’s notorious women’s asylum, where she must fight to reclaim dangerous memories—and even more perilously, her sanity—in this gripping historical novel inspired by true events, from the bestselling author of Wunderland.
“I didn’t see her the day she came to the asylum. Looking back, this sometimes strikes me as unlikely. Impossible, even, given how utterly her arrival would upend the already chaotic order of things at the Salpêtrière—not to mention change the course of my own life there.”
When Josephine arrives at the Salpêtrière she is covered in blood and badly bruised. Suffering from near-complete amnesia, she is diagnosed with what the Paris papers are calling “the epidemic of the age”: hysteria. It is a disease so baffling and widespread that Doctor Jean-Martine Charcot, the asylum’s famous director, devotes many of his popular public lectures to the malady. To Charcot’s delight, Josephine also proves extraordinarily susceptible to hypnosis, the tool he uses to unlock hysteria’s myriad (and often sensational) symptoms. Soon Charcot is regularly featuring Josephine on his stage, entrancing the young woman into fantastical acts and hallucinatory fits before enraptured audiences and eager newsmen—many of whom feature her on their paper’s front pages.
For Laure, a lonely asylum attendant assigned to Josephine’s care, Charcot’s diagnosis seems a godsend. A former hysteric herself, she knows better than most that life in the Salpêtrière’s Hysteria Ward is far easier than in its dreaded Lunacy division, from which few inmates ever return. But as Josephine’s fame as Charcot’s “star hysteric” grows, her memory starts to return—and with it, images of a horrific crime she believes she’s committed. Haunted by these visions, and helplessly trapped in Charcot’s hypnotic web, she starts spiraling into actual insanity. Desperate to save the girl she has grown to love, Laure plots their escape from the Salpêtrière and its doctors. First, though, she must confirm whether Joséphine is actually a madwoman, soon to be consigned to the Salpêtrière’s brutal Lunacy Ward—or a murderer, destined for the guillotine.
Both are dark possibilities—but not nearly as dark as what Laure will unearth when she sets out to discover the truth.
I didn’t see her the day she came to the asylum. Looking back, this sometimes strikes me as unlikely.The Madwomen of Paris by Jennifer Cody Epstein
As a former hysteria patient, nineteen-year-old Laure has been kept on at the famous Salpetrier hospital as an attendant in the Hysteria ward. Her life is lonely, and the work is endless, as she is the attendant to Rosalie, who Dr. Jean-Marie Charcot displays to explain what hysteria means. But that changes when Josephine arrives at the hospital. Covered in bruises and blood, Josephine is sure she committed a murder, but she can’t remember if she did. With rare beauty and highly susceptible to hypnosis, Josephine soon becomes Dr. Charcot’s star hysteric. But, with her memory returning and becoming more confident that she committed murder, Josephine and Laure start planning their escape. But Laure must find out if what Josephine did is the truth, and she must find a way to keep Josephine from going to the Lunacy ward. Will they escape? Did Josephine kill her former master?
When I was looking through the books on NetGalley, I came across this one. I was immediately drawn to the cover. Then I read the blurb and thought, “I must read this.” Since it was unavailable to request, I decided to wish on it. When I got the email saying that the publisher granted my wish, I was thrilled. Now that I have read it, I can tell everyone that this book was fantastic.
The Madwomen of Paris is a medium-paced book set in 19th-century Paris. The author took her time introducing Laure and explaining her background. She also took her time introducing Salpêtrière and explaining what hysteria was. Then she took time building up Josephine’s backstory. By the middle of the book, she amped up the slowness to a medium pace and kept it that pace until the end. There were some parts where I got frustrated with the pacing (mainly in the beginning), but by the end of the book, my irritation was gone. I understood why the author chose to pace the book as she did.
The main storyline concerns Laure, Josephine, Josephine’s amnesia, and their plans to escape. The storyline was well-written, and I got lost in the book as I was reading it. I loved that the author used real places (the Salpêtrière is a real hospital) and real people (Dr. Charcot was famous in 19th-century Paris). Those details added extra depth to the storyline. I also liked how the author explained hysteria and the different (and awful) ways of treating it.
I liked and pitied Laure. She suffered when she was younger, and I didn’t blame her for losing it. Losing two parents and an unborn sibling back to back would test even the strongest person. In a way, she did luck out when she was sent to Salpêtrière and again when she was hired to be an attendant. But she was lonely, so she got so caught up with Josephine.
I liked Josephine, but at the same time, I was wary of her. I didn’t doubt that her employer viciously attacked her, but I wondered if she had regained her memory of that night sooner than she had told Laure. At various points in the book, I wondered if she was using Laure. She sent Laure to check out the house where she killed her master. Her actions at the end of the book spoke volumes and just cemented my wariness of her.
There is a romance angle in the book that was interesting, and I liked it. But, I felt that it was one-sided, and Josephine used Laure’s feelings to further her ambitions.
An author’s note at the end of the book explains hysteria, how it encompassed many things that ail women (mentally ill—you’re hysterical, like sex—you’re hysterical, like the ladies—you’re hysterical). It was revolting to see how women were treated back then, and the author showed that repeatedly.
The end of The Madwomen of Paris was interesting, and I liked the author’s twist. It was something that I didn’t see coming. I did see what happened between Josephine and Laure coming, though, and it got me a little mad. I did like that Laure got her happy ending.
I would recommend The Madwomen of Paris to anyone over 16. There is violence, mild language, and sexual situations. I will warn that there are graphic scenes of a rape being reenacted through hypnosis, as well as Dr. Charcot showing what a body can do under hypnosis.
Many thanks to Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, Ballantine Books, NetGalley, and Jennifer Cody Epstein for allowing me to read and review The Madwomen of Paris. All opinions stated in this review are mine.
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