Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review and giveaway of 'Blue Asylum'

"Blue Asylum" by Kathy Hepinstall, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2012, 288 pages, $24)

After I finished reading Kathy Hepinstall's "Blue Asylum, I realized that none of the vividly-drawn characters were happy at all. Yet I enjoyed the novel that tells a love story while touching on such issues as women's rights, war, insanity, independence, redemption, passion and forgiveness.

"Blue Asylum" takes place during the Civil War on sunny Sanibel island in Florida, but not even the ocean, the sand, the flora and fauna of the island offer much comfort to those imprisoned in the asylum or who who work there. It would seem to be the finest, most luxurious place a person with mental illness might be detained and treated ... in the 1860s. But like any place of that nature, it's not without its torments.

While reading Hepinstall's first descriptions of the island and the asylum, I pictured the setting Leonardo DiCaprio's (not so good, although it does co-star Mark Ruffalo) movie "Shelter Island." But this asylum is no house of horrors. However, no matter the setting or the accommodations, no one likes to be held against his or her will. The patients there are distracted, sad and subdued, but whether they are truly insane, Hepinstall never really says outright. She just hints at various disorders (one patient who swallows anything small enough; a blind man haunted by his lover's scent; a woman who believes her deceased husband is still by her side).

Iris Dunleavy is the newest patient to be introduced to Sanibel Asylum. She is comely young Virginia plantation owner's wife who, though she seems quite sane, has been sent away by her rich husband after some terrible "incident" ... after which she is declared "mad." We discover Iris' story in bits and pieces woven throughout the tale through her flashbacks and memories.

Shortly after her arrival on the island, she spies a handsome young patient named Ambrose. Tormented by visions of his time in service of the Confederacy in the Civil War, Ambrose is prone to inconsolable fits that come on without warning. The asylum's physician, Dr. Henry Cowell, has a method to help Ambrose calm down when he starts to become agitated by his memories: Picture everything blue. “Blue ink spilling on a page. A blue sheet flapping on a clothesline. Blue of blueberries. Of water.” Also helping him maintain relative calm: Generous doses of laudanum.

Over time, Iris and Ambrose strike up a friendship over a daily chess game. Soon they're talking more than they're playing chess. Iris starts to include Ambrose in her plans to escape.

Integral to her plan is Cowell's 13-year-old son, Wendell: A sensitive young man who sneaks out of the house every night to explore the island and to try forget a girl he loved - a patient who died. I ended up feeling worse for poor Wendell than I did for Iris, who to me was a very strong character.

There is a sadness and tension in every character that drives the story. Others have described the book as "Southern Gothic." The language and general atmosphere gives it a unique and lasting feeling. I think you'll probably enjoy the book if you enjoy historical fiction or a good love story. I was more of a fan of the language.

If you would like to "win" my new hardcover review copy of Kathy Hepinstall's new novel "Blue Asylum," courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt books, simply comment on this post with your email address. If you're selected as winner (at random), I'll contact you to find out where to mail the book. If no one comments or otherwise claims the book it will be donated to the Pottstown Regional Public Library.

About the book (from the publisher):

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.

See more on the publisher's website.

View the book trailer here.

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.

Learn more on her website,


Carl said...

Hi Michelle

I've been intrigued by Blue Asylum ever since I first heard about it. How neat that you now have a copy available on your blog.
Please enter my name for the chance to win this copy.
Fingers crossed.


UK said...

The author did an excellent job capturing realistic views on the war from different perspectives. The characters were well-drawn and intriguing, even the less likeable ones like Dr. Cowell and the matron. The patients and their disorders were realistic, quirky, and consistent, one of my favorite elements in this novel. I loved the style the first half of this novel was written in, easy and flowing as all the characters were introduced and the setting and plot expanded. Ambrose's Post Traumatic Shock Disorder was very true to life.

Michelle Karas said...

I agree with your synopsis, UK. The characterization was very well done. The doctor, Wendell, even the chef were rounded-out, full beings I wanted to know more about.

I also enjoyed the slower pace of the first half of the novel. All in all, a good read.

Thanks for your comment!

Bethany said...

I would love to win!!! Beautful story!!! Thanks, Bethany Rose

Michelle Karas said...

Sorry, Bethany, but I gave away this one to Sherri K. of Pittsburgh. No worries - more book giveaways to come.