BLUE ASYLUM by Kathy Hepinstall

Book Quote:

“Iris Dunleavy?” asked Mary. “Is she the plantation wife? She dresses so well for a lunatic. She had the most colorful flounces on her skirt the other night.”

Book Review:

Review by Judi Clark  (FEB 9, 2014)

This is Kathy Hepinstall’s fourth novel… and I’ve read all four, so obviously I like this author. She writes a different book each time and thus one never knows what will be found upon picking up her latest, although one can be sure it will be both literary and lyrical, no matter the tone and subject.

Blue Asylum takes place during the Civil War years on Sanibel Island on the west coast of Florida.

A judge finds the main character, Iris Dunleavy, insane essentially for hating and embarrassing her husband, “Wives were not supposed to hate their husbands. It was not in the proper order of things.” Her rich husband pays extra for her to be cured at the institution with the best reputation, the SANIBEL ASYLUM FOR LUNATICS which is managed by British born psychiatrist Dr. Cowell, who stubbornly believes that Iris is insane because a judge declared it. But Iris insists that she is not insane, that she was merely escaping from a hateful husband and cruel man. As she reveals her horrific story bit by bit, we can see that while she may not be clinically insane, she may have been crazy mad considering the decisions/actions she undertook (and continues to undertake).

She befriends the doctor’s 14-year-old son Wendell and another patient, Ambrose, who is suffering from something that happened during the civil war. She longs to escape and eventually does but with devastating effects.

I liked many things about this book, but I didn’t “love it,” at least not as much as I did The Absence of Nectar and Prince of Lost Places. But I did enjoy it immensely even though it is a little heavy handed on the message, not unlike her debut (and Oprah book club choice)  The House of Gentle Men.  Then again, given headlines such as Todd Akin’s comment on legitimate rape, it may be that heavy handed feminist historical literature is still necessary.

Hepinstall captures the historical detail of well and it is very visual as she sets a mood and imagery that plays out well both as metaphor and setting:

“Dawn broke soft and clean on the island of shell and marl and current. It was a day like any other, one more day in a season when marking the days was difficult, since the balminess was resolute and the birds were attuned to the tides, the tides to the moon, and the moon to the lunatics, under their crazy spell, waxing and waning in the accordance with the fluctuations of their madness and the depth of passions. A group of terns had gathered at the edge of a calm sea, and a single raccoon, caught after a daylight, skittered out of the dune vegetation and into the forest, leaving behind a loggerhead nest full of ruined eggs, shells broken and half-formed turtles spilling out in the sand.”

Hepinstall considers this a love story… and it is, but not the happy kind. This novel is an excellent choice for book clubs.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 139 readers
PUBLISHER: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (April 9, 2013)
REVIEWER: Judi Clark
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Kathy Hepinstall really humorous blog
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February 9, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Contemporary, Facing History, Literary, Reading Guide, Theme driven, US South

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