"An Inconvenient Wife" by Megan Chance
Recently, I read an incredibly fast-paced and intriguing novel titled An Inconvenient Wife (by Megan Chance). The book takes place in 1880s New York, and follows the story of Lucy, a high society woman, who has "fits" symptomatic of hysteria (basically, a mental disorder singularly exhibited in women due to malfunctioning or deformed reproductive organs). Lucy's husband, William, is the typical nineteenth-century American husband in high society: rich and chauvinistic. He expects his wife to be the "angel of the house," demure to all of his decisions, and, most importantly, endure her once-in-a-while sexual couplings with him--because God knows that women shouldn't feel sexual desire at all.
As a last resort, William accepts the treatment offered to Lucy by a hypnotist (often referred to as a neurologist in this novel), Victor Seth. From this point forward, one never knows if decisions are being made by Lucy, William, or Victor--and the outcome is deadly.
The novel is important as a historical novel because it delves into uncomfortable territory. So many arguments are made about gender, sexuality, power, perception, reality, illusion, etc. It is fascinating. You never really know how you feel about any of these flawed human beings; and, even at the end, you don't know what is reality. Chance also describes the often brutal and/or degrading treatments offered for hysteria, always pointing out that the woman is on display. The way she does this is subtle but makes the reader feel humiliation right along with Lucy.
The secondary characters are fascinatingly drawn as well, from Lucy's high society friends to William's real family and the servants. It is a fascinating novel that compelled me to want to read it even though I had other things that I wanted to be working on! To me, if I carry the story with me beyond the page and into my thoughts throughout the day, I know that the book is good. This book did that for me.
So, if you aren't easily freaked out by late-nineteenth century medical practices and you want a book that will keep you wondering even on the last page (because I don't really buy that the last words are totally truthful), then read this book!