Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

“‘I told you, that isn’t my name.  I am Louisa Cosgrove. And I’m not meant to be here.  There’s been a mistake.’

He pauses…then turns to read the page of cramped writing I can see inside the folder.

It suddenly occurs to me-perhaps they’re pretending they don’t know who I am. Perhaps they’re trying to drive me mad.

I take a deep breath. ‘I’m not mad, Doctor.  You can see that, so-‘”

There’s been a terrible mistake. Instead of being driven to a manor where she was to begin her position as a companion, Louisa is taken to Wildthorn Hall, an asylum.  They call her Lucy and interpret her every protest as further evidence of her illness.  But who had her committed? More importantly, how can she get out? Does her family really believe she belongs here? Or worse, is it possible that they do not even know where she is?

Amidst the groans and suffering of her fellow patients, Louisa recalls her outside life.  True, perhaps she read more than was considered seemly for young women, and her ambition to become a doctor was certainly unconventional.  But moral insanity? Surely having dreams of something other than a husband and family does not amount to an illness!  In order to save her life and be united with her love, Louisa stages a risky escape attempt.  But on the outside, there are many dangers for a young woman, and it seems her troubles have just begun.

I did absolutely nothing today but finish this book; I got it yesterday night.  First, it’s about time we have some good queer historical fiction! Even better, this is a queer story that doesn’t revolve around a coming out. Louisa, from her childhood on, has preferred science to sewing and riding horses to making calls.  However, she is not committed to the asylum because she is a lesbian, rather, because she exhibits unfeminine characteristics and ambitions for her time.  In this way, the book is an interesting commentary on the restrictive expectations for women in nineteenth-century England.

For those of you looking for a love story, don’t worry.  It’s there, it is sweet, and it defies the bleakness of the novel’s setting.  For a young adult book that reads like the lovechild of The Well of Loneliness and Jane Eyre, the tender romance is refreshingly hopeful, but not wildly so.  It is not so perfectly constructed that it seems unrealistic, but it is a lovely surprise!  I’ve been waiting to read this book for a long time, and I couldn’t have ordered a more perfect compilation of everything I love in a read-for-pleasure book. I haven’t been this happy since I discovered Sarah Waters. Oh, and one more awesome thing-this novel is based on a true story (Seriously. Isn’t that awful?  We should all be welling over with gratitude for our feminist predecessors, because now we don’t have to worry about being tossed in an asylum because we were inconveniently un-feminine.)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website (look, she has another book out!): http://www.janeeagland.com 

Eagland, Jane. Wildthorn. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. 349 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this book because of the historical setting, you might like the classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Older readers looking for lesbian love stories set in Victorian England will go crazy over Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.  For a fantasy featuring girls who fall in love, try Malinda Lo’s Huntress.  Creepy gothic feel? Try A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray! And for a French medieval trilogy about assassin nuns (ok, not technically related to England or asylums or lesbians), I’ve been wanting to read Grave Mercy. It looks fantastic!

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Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

“I shouldn’t have come to a gay beach.  That was wacko of me.  Here I am, terrified of people thinking I’m a tortillera. I was thrown out my school and my house for loving a girl, and what do I do?  I come to a gay beach for the first time in my life.  I’m just the most brilliant kid on the block.”

Do you know how I know when to put a book on the All Time Awesome-est List?  It’s when I’m seriously let down when the book is finished, when I feel like there’s no way the next book will compare to it.  Well, here it is, friends: meet the new addition to the List: Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone.

On the last day of eleventh grade, Laura gets caught reading a love letter in class at her Catholic school.  Worse still, the letter is from a girl, her secret girlfriend of two years.  The nuns drag her to the office, call her mom, and in the same day, she gets kicked out of both her school and her house.  Worst of all, her girlfriend gets shipped off to marry a guy! So that’s no school, no home, and no love…you’d think it would be the end of the world, but Laura works it out, with the help of a colorful (and still authentic) cast of characters

This book sparkles with enthusiasm.  Laura is sassy, funny, and passionately devoted to her friends and little brother.  (She even sneaks in to see him at his school when her mother refuses to let her visit).  During the course of the story, she has to make some difficult choices: coming out, when it might mean that her mom could never speak to her again, or just trying (like her ex-girlfriend, Marlena) to find a guy and live the straight life, because it’s too scary to lose everything.  However, even though she’s really struggling with her identity and feelings, the book doesn’t ever bog down into the “This is Just a Coming-Out Book” pit.  It’s fresh-and that’s mostly thanks to Laura’s hilarious commentary (Dole is a master with dialogue!)  and the great supporting characters.

I love it!  I love it because it features a Cuban lesbian as main character.  The food, the Miami beach culture, the Cuban influences, and the slang all make this book delicious and fun.  But I love it even more because it’s a very honest portrayal of the coming-out process.  For example, Laura tries hard to date a boy, but she ends up just feeling like she can’t get close to him emotionally, even though she doesn’t dislike kissing him.  The story lets you get close to Laura in that way, by following her thoughts, and she’s so positive and funny that you just fall in love with her!  I also like that Dole lets the readers get a little nervous:  I know that when Laura is waffling about coming out to her mom (I won’t ruin it for you, though), I was rushing through the book, because I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do the Brave Thing.

This is an ALA Rainbow List  (a great list of GLBTQ books for young people) Starred selection, and was also nominated for the ALA Best Books list, as well as the winner of the Americas award, for its portrayal of Latinas in the United States.  Good stuff!

Happy reading!

Author’s website: http://mayraldole.wordpress.com/  (She has a blog on Goodreads, too)

What’s even better is that she has a new book coming out next year! Wooohooo!

Dole, Mayra Lazara. Down to the Bone. New York: HarperTeen, 2008. 351 pp.