The problem with not reviewing books right after finishing them is that some books have no lasting power. You don’t remember specifics and have nothing but impressions that also fade over time. Plot details go missing. While you can jog your memory by reading other reviews and the synopsis, you risk letting someone else’s opinion influence your own.
Such is the case with Woman 99. I read it approximately two months ago. I know I enjoyed reading it because I know it did not take me long to read. I remember the main plot points of the story. I have impressions of certain scenes that struck me as well-written and or beautifully descriptive. Unfortunately, when I go to describe it, two months after finishing it, I am ambivalent about the novel.
What sticks with me most is a lingering question about the story’s purpose. We know that in the past asylums were horrible places for the mentally ill. We know women had few rights at the turn of the century and were at the mercy of the men in their lives. We know men admitted women for a myriad of reasons, including using it as a convenient method to get rid of a troublesome wife/sister/daughter. Woman 99 tells us nothing new about any of that.
Neither is Woman 99 a true story. The main character uses Nellie Bly as her inspiration, but it is not about Ms. Bly’s actual experiences going undercover in an insane asylum. Instead, it is an imagined story of what it might be like for someone else to infiltrate a mental institution. There was an asylum in Napa at the turn of the century, and some of the characters have a loose connection to real-life people from the area. However, the story remains purely fictional.
I now circle back to my initial comment about the purpose of Woman 99. Is it to entertain? Is it to educate? It did amuse me, but that lasted as long as it took me to finish reading it. I cannot even say I would recommend it to others because there are much better books out there that are more worthy of someone’s precious time. It did not educate me because there was little within its pages that I did not already know. It is not escapist literature; mental illness and how we treat it within society and medically are such hot button items these days that it is a timely book regardless of the historical setting.
All this leads me to conclude that Woman 99 is a decent book but one that is ultimately forgettable. While there is adequate development of the characters, none are truly memorable. There is nothing earth-shattering within its pages, nothing that makes it a book which entices you to drop everything and read. It is a fast-paced book, which may be its saving grace, in that the story does not take long to develop or move towards its conclusion. There are one or two mild surprises with the plot and characters, but mostly it is a simple story that will get lost in the shuffle of the dozens of other books you will read throughout the year.