cover image The Madwomen of Paris

The Madwomen of Paris

Jennifer Cody Epstein. Ballantine, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-15800-5

This beautifully crafted historical from Epstein (Wunderland) evokes the cruel and misogynistic mental health system of late 19th-century Paris. After Laure Bissonet’s father dies in debt, his house is seized, leaving Laure without a home. She has a breakdown and lands in the hysteria ward of the Salpêtrière, Paris’s massive asylum for women. She recovers, but lacks the skills necessary for employment beyond the asylum. Laure is earning her room and board by working as a resident ward attendant when a blood-spattered, agitated woman is admitted to the Salpêtrière. Chosen to care for the striking redhead, Laure feels an immediate attraction to Josephine Garreau’s beauty, intelligence, and vulnerability. Josephine soon stars in neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s popular public lectures, in which he and his students, including Sigmund Freud, use her outré behavior under hypnosis to bolster Charcot’s theories of female hysteria. As Josephine begins to heal she and Laure grow close, but Laure is skeptical when Josephine claims to have killed her abusive employer just before arriving at the asylum. Gradually, Laure realizes that Charcot’s protocol is damaging her friend’s sanity and that Josephine’s confession of murder may be true. Combining elegant prose, artfully chosen historical details, and convincing characterizations, this haunting narrative showcases Epstein at her best. (July)