Friday, October 30, 2015

Book Review: A Madness Most Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

I received a copy of this book with my October Owlcrate subscription.  I began reading it Tuesday and finished it yesterday.

A Madness So Discreet is a YA historical thriller dealing with a victim of rape/incest who has been confined to a mental asylum by her wealthy father in order to hide the evidence of his abuse.  Later, she is rescued by a handsome young doctor who wishes to use her somewhat photographic memory to help him as he researches crime scenes in Holmes-like early detective work.

Here's the short review:
Setting: Fantastic!  McGinnis has claimed she was inspired by visiting a former lunatic asylum in Ohio. She sets the book first in an asylum in Boston and then in the one in Ohio to contrast the two.
The problem here is that the setting takes over the book and contributes to the problems she has with the plot.
Characterization: Both good and bad.  Grace (the protagonist) and most of her supporting cast are really well done and multi-layered.  McGinnis clearly had a good interest in research mental patients and nurses.
The problem is the villains.  They are spoken of, analyzed at a distance, dissected mentally and emotionally.  But McGinnis never lets them speak much.  She TELLS us they're villains, but she really doesn't show them in action.  She seems not to have any idea how to work with them, so she hides them and covers up most of their action scenes.
Pacing: Very good.  The book moves right along.
Plot: The first 3/4 of the plot works very well, but the last 1/4 is grating and contrived.  McGinnis clearly wants a circular plot, to put the main villain into the position where the protagonist began, but getting there is awful and cumbersome.
I will go into detail below.
Messages: Whether they are intentional or not, every author gives messages with a book.  McGinnis' are problematic and sometimes conflicting.  She appears to take a feminist approach, showing how men could have women thrown into asylums for practically no reason and having a strong supporting character be a women's rights activist and having Dr. Thornhollow appreciate Grace's intelligence, but then McGinnis shows her anti-abortion stance by telling the readers that even a D&C to remove a dead fetus endangering the mother's health is wrong, and she clearly puts the blame for one rapist's behavior on the fact that the man has a strong-minded mother, indicating he is acting out his rage on other women because one woman makes him feel emasculated.  Furthermore, McGinnis' anti-abortion stance is very odd when it is contrasted with her pro-vigilante justice one.  In the book, it is wrong to scrape out an already-dead fetus, but it's just fine to murder a man in cold blood because characters don't want to deal with the slow pace of the court system It's also apparently just fine to have another man tried and convicted for the crimes of the first, assuming the punishment for the dead man's crimes will suffice as the punishment for his own.
I found these very conflicting.
Literary Allusions: Misleading.
The title, A Madness So Discreet, is immediately familiar to readers as a corruption of Shakespeare's line in Romeo and Juliet, "a madness most discreet."  The problem is that Romeo is ranting about his unrequited love for Rosaline, and he is identifying and describing love here.  This allusion leads the reader to believe the book has a romantic subplot.  It doesn't.  Thus, the title is a very odd choice.
Age Group Suitability: This book deals with rape, impotence, incest, and sex.  I wouldn't risk putting it in my classroom lest some parent freak out over it.  I suggest that it's more appropriate for about age 15 and older, depending on the teen, of course.

These are the reasons why I cannot give the book five stars.

More in-depth review of the plot problems:

McGinnis' plot problems come from the fact that she was trying too hard to contrast the two asylums and have a circular plot.
Here's a synopsis the plot: Grace has spent several years dealing with her father's sexual abuse of her, hoping to keep her pre-pubescent sister Alice safe from him.  Her mother, knowing the man is raping other women, is insanely jealous and won't help her daughter.  Grace ends up pregnant and her father puts her in a Boston asylum where she is subject to cruel treatment.  He plans to take her back home once she gives birth, and she knows he will go right back to his abuse.  Thus, when Dr. Thornhollow does frontal lobotomies on several violent patients, she begs for one so that her father will not take her back.  Instead, Thornhollow only gives her superficial scars.  She pretends to be a lobotomy patient, and the doctor convinces the official to pretend she's dead and give her father ashes while he (Thornhollow) takes her with him.
Once they are in the much nicer asylum in Ohio, Grace makes friends with a couple of patients, one of whom is called Lizzie.  Thornhollow has Grace help him solve a few murders.  Then a pattern of rape and murder victims arise, and she and Thornhollow are stumped.  In the meantime, Grace has been writing letters (under an alias) to her younger sister, and she is growing extremely worried that her father will soon start abusing her.
Thus far, the plot works, but then things get really weird.
Grace discovers the local rapist and murderer is the town pharmacist.  Thornhollow claims they don't have enough evidence to convince the police of his guilt yet, so while he's out of town, Grace lures the rapist into the woods and slits his throat in cold blood.  She is not sorry over it at all, and Thornhollow is only mildly bothered by this.  He appears not to consider her dangerous.  He tells her she's not insane.  (This might have been believable if he had a sexual interest in Grace, but he appears not to, and it's implied he's satisfying himself with various servants and such.)
If that's not strange enough, Grace then convinces him that they need to frame her father for the rapes and murders committed by the pharmacist because they cannot bring him to trial for the rapes he has actually committed.  Thornhollow is not bothered by bringing a man to trial for rapes and murders when the man is guilty of rapes and incest, but he is worried about his career.
They convince Lizzie to pretend to be a rape victim, and she suddenly becomes a marvelous actress, convincing everyone in the courtroom that Grace's father raped her and threatened to kill her like the other girls (killed by the pharmacist, but no one else knows that).  Thornhollow quails at the last minute and convinces the jury the man is criminally insane (Yes, and so's his freakin' daughter, but this never comes up.), so instead of hanging, he will be confined to the same Boston asylum where Grace began the book.  And little Alice goes to live with her aunt while the evil mother lives in shame and disgrace. (pun!)
The ending is clumsy, contrived, and awful.  The reader has learned to empathize with a protagonist who is suffering PTSD wants to see her heal.  Instead, she slits a man's throat and goes on her merry way as if nothing had happened.  The author condones this behavior in her.
Then the whole trial is TOLD rather than shown, and it's completely unbelievable.  Thornhollow has no real motivation to do what he does.  Lizzie could not possibly act so convincingly.  No one would fall for this.  It's so clunky and such a bad way to get poetic justice.
Since the reader needs to have Alice saved and the villains punished but should really see Grace stay on the path to healing and not go off to be worse than her own father, I propose an alternate ending.  Here's what SHOULD have happened:
Grace discovers the pharmacist is the rapist/murderer.  While she and Thornhollow are working to get the police to solve the crime, he attacks Grace, and she kills him in self-defence.  Meanwhile, Grace's mother, realizing her husband is going to start abusing Alice, kills him in a jealous rage.  She is declared insane and sent to suffer in the asylum, and Alice goes to live with Aunt Beth.  Grace continues to heal and work with Thornhollow, getting a job, as she is too scarred to deal with the ideas of marriage and sex.
My alternate ending brings about poetic justice but leaves out the clunkiness of the real ending.  Plus, Grace would not become a murderer.

Overall, the book is pretty good, but the end is a HUGE mess.  Just be aware of this if you read it.

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