Greer Macallister did it again. With Woman 99, she wrote another book I couldn’t stop listening to and reading. Macallister has a way with her portrayals of strong, but flawed, women. In Woman 99, she gives us several who fit that mold.
Her chief protagonist is Charlotte Smith, whose family is up-and-coming in 1888 San Francisco’s tony Nob Hill. One of four siblings, Charlotte is admittedly pampered. She attended finishing school, and now her parents want her to marry the son of their much-wealthier neighbors.
But complications ensue, since Charlotte’s sister Phoebe has mental health issues. In keeping with the times, Macallister never names the diagnosis but the descriptions match bipolar disorder. The Smith parents decide that a high-end institution called Goldengrove, located in the Napa Valley, is the best place for Phoebe.
But Charlotte can’t just stand by and watch this happen. So she dives right in—literally jumping into San Francisco Bay—in order to get herself anonymously committed to the same institution. Pretty naïve choice, if you ask me. Charlotte has no particular plan. In fact, she thinks all she’ll have to do is tell the administrators that she’s not insane and Phoebe shouldn’t be there either. And voilà, home they go.
Of course, it’s infinitely more complex than that. And Charlotte must take a deep breath and really figure out her options and allies. Along the way, she meets some admirable women from many stations in life. Some have mental illness, but many are just deemed to be “problems.” She also finds out that the institution’s staff and treatments aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
I enjoyed this just as much as Macallister’s Girl in Disguise. Although the stories were entirely different, Charlotte is a woman who disguises herself as something she’s not. I did my share of eye rolls at her naïveté, but also appreciated her sisterly devotion. Her mother’s social climbing is cringe-worthy, considering she uses her daughters as pawns in the game. Phoebe is self-aware enough to continue her big sister role, but is much more a realist. That’s ironic considering she also has a serious disorder.
As you can see, Macallister balances complexity with the character types of the era. She also takes on the 19th-century practice of “erasing” difficult women by locking them away. Other history books cover the practice of diagnosing women with unfounded mental and physical illness. For example, Unmentionable, which I read earlier this year. But Macallister brings this horrible practice to life with her sympathetic characters and unique plot.
The other book I’m reading this week, called Down Girl: The Logic Of Misogyny, even referenced this behavior. “The dismissal of the victims of misogynistic violence may take epistemic forms: where, typically, they are held to be lying—but alternatively, they may be dismissed as stupid, crazy, or hysterical.” (p. 217) In 1888, those women would end up in a place like Woman 99’s Goldengrove.
The way Macallister and Charlotte resolve the situation is unexpected and well done. The bulk of the book is in the asylum, but the ending has enough focus and neatly ties up the most significant story lines. Like I said, once I hit 50% I was positively itching to see what happened.
Charlotte, Phoebe, and the other women in their world are well worth meeting, if you like historical fiction with relevant feminist themes.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Sourcebooks Landmark, and the author for a digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.