What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman
I was recommended this book by my cousin’s wife. And though I love her dearly, I’m not sure I was a big fan of the novel.
A story split in two times, What She Left Behind follows 17-year-old Izzy in the 1990s, and 18-year-old Clara in the 1930s. Izzy’s foster parents work for a museum and bring Izzy along with them on an exploration of a state-run insane asylum that has been closed for decades. Clara, in the 1930’s, is institutionalized and tortured because she fell in love with the wrong man. A series of twists and turns follows, and the stories become twined.
As I read the first few chapters of Izzy’s story, I found it to be cliched. New Girl receives hate from Popular Girl, makes friends with an Outsider. Popular Girl’s Boyfriend is interested in New Girl. Haven’t we read this story over and over a thousand times? The fact that Izzy, the New Girl, is a foster child with a dark past doesn’t do much to bring light to a tired story.
On the contrary, the first few chapters of Clara’s story were much more interesting. A look into 1920’s New York from a bright-eyed teenager was engaging and exciting. I wanted to know more about Clara’s relationship with the taboo foreigner Bruno. The conflict between her and her parents is an age-old one, but in a setting that’s fresh. Problems arise for Clara when she’s sent off to the state-run asylum.
I found myself rolling my eyes at Izzy’s trite situations, simply riding my way through it to get to the chapters about Clara, but Clara’s story kept taking downward turns without any hope. And then, when it felt like Clara’s situation couldn’t get any worse, and Izzy’s situation, too, was at its darkest, I waited for an epiphany moment–a ray of sunshine. It was very, very disappointing when there wasn’t one. It felt like things just got more and more horrible, and then I was given a brief, unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise torturous story.
I am glad that I read the novel though I’m not sure I would recommend it. I learned a lot as a reader and a writer from this story and these characters: I imagined how I would twist things to make the situations less cliche, I was frustrated with the lack of dimensions of the antagonist forces (as I often am), and I was given a glimpse into the world I’d never experienced. But the chapter-after-chapter torture without much relent was too much for me. And the lack of epiphany made the denouement of the book a little flat.