"Woman 99" by Greer Macallister
Sometime during my high school years — around the time I started to read the works of Austen and the Bronte sisters by choice and not because they were required — I went through a phase in which I deeply regretted that I wasn’t born a few centuries earlier.
How lovely it would have been, I thought at the time, to be born far, far in the past when life was simpler, men where chivalrous, and free time — at least for those of a certain station — was abundant.
Living back then would have solved so many problems.
My two favorite pastimes, reading and writing, wouldn’t have set me apart as a nerd — a title which, TBH, I never minded much anyways — but would have instead been quite the norm were I born when books were one of the only forms of diversion and writing was, basically, the only way to communicate with those not in your immediate proximity.
Also, weight control would have been no issue as whatever chub those walks through the countryside and into town didn’t eradicate would have been easily squashed down with a corset and hidden under layers of petticoats and crinolines and dresses.
Now, I should preface this desire to abandon modern comforts by explaining that, at the time, modern comforts weren’t quite as…comfortable…as they are now.
When I was in high school, the only means of connecting to the internet was still dial up and, to watch a movie of my choice, I had to acquire a clunky VHS from Blockbuster and put it in my VCR, hoping beyond hope that that the previous viewer had decided to be kind and rewind, for, if not, getting the tape back to the beginning was a 10-minute exercise in patience.
In retrospect, it was, honestly, probably easier to covet the lives of those who lived centuries in the past when the luxurious technologies of modern life were less plentiful.
But now, with my smartphone in hand, Amazon one-click purchasing enabled, and Netflix always at the ready, wishing myself marooned in a tech-free wasteland seems... ridiculous. Even if there were a possibility there would be a Mr. Darcy there to act as a diversion.
In truth, though, aside from the lack of technology, there are other things about life in the past that make me less than desirous to actually live there.
One of those things is the way that women who didn’t fall into line were treated.
If I didn’t know before how rough life could be for women of the past who had the gall to speak — or even have — their own mind, this novel would have proven it to me.
The eponymous protagonist of this novel — our Woman 99 — Charlotte, is in possession of many of the characteristics prized of women in the late 1800’s.
She is beautiful.
She is from a relatively wealthy family.
And she is marriageable.
What she is not, though, is subservient.
She knows what she wants and she’s willing to break the rigid rules she has been taught to obey to get it.
As the novel opens, Charlotte wants one thing: to save her sister.
Though Charlotte’s sister, Phoebe inarguably has a mental health issue — what would, today, be identified as bipolar disorder — Charlotte and her family have dealt with Phoebe’s cycles of mania and depression for years internally, electing against subjecting her to the purported cures of the time. But their parents’ willingness to handle these sometimes extreme waves of emotion evaporates when, after learning that her sister Charlotte is being forced to marry a man who she not only doesn’t love, but also barely knows, Phoebe pushes back. Unwilling to bend to Phoebe’s demands, the girls’ parents send Phoebe to Goldengrove, an insane asylum, under the guise that she is to receive treatment, but really just to prevent her from getting in the way of their carefully laid plan.
Fueled in equal parts by love and her belief that she owes a debt to Phoebe — who sacrificed her freedom to try to secure Charlotte’s — Charlotte develops a plan to sneak into the asylum in which Phoebe is housed, find her, and help her escape.
Though her relatively fearless attempt to secure her own entry in to the asylum goes almost better than could have been expected, Charlotte is not prepared for what she finds inside those walls.
It becomes quickly apparent to her that everything she thought she knew about the Goldengrove — which is owned by the family into which she was expected to marry — is a lie and that finding her sister and getting both of them out of this veritable prison is going to be a task that requires more strength than Charlotte is sure she possesses.
A powerful read that told an important story, there was lots to love about this novel.
The most prominent strength of the book as a whole was the beautiful, fluid prose.
Macallister’s style was reminiscent of the flowery yet forceful form found in Austen’s classics, which is almost certainly why I found it so endearing and why, as I read, I so happily allowed the words to envelope me, wrapping around me like a warm, linguistic blanket.
Not only was this style pleasant to read — particularly for anyone with an affinity for classic literature — it was also effective in more fully transporting you back in time to the late 1800s. As a reader, you never had to question where you were in time, because it felt less like you were reading a modern historical fiction book and more like you were reading a classic fiction novel penned in the time in which it was set.
Also strong was the use of flashbacks. Essentially, all of the backstory of this novel was established through the use of well-placed and logical flashbacks.
Because these flashbacks were being tasked with doing the heavy and important work of building a backstory, they had to be exceptional.
And they were.
Somehow, Macallister peppered in flashbacks that were so robust and real and powerful that they enabled readers to form strong attachments to characters that they had never met outside of the mind of the main character. And because Macallister could do this so effectively, she could extend the world of the novel far beyond the confining walls of Goldengrove, making the world of the book feel rich and dynamic and genuine.
The final strength that absolutely requires mention is the vibrancy and likability of the characters.
I fucking loved Charlotte.
She was the kind of badass bitch I would want to be — but likely wouldn’t possess the strength to become — were I transported back in time and transformed into a Nob Hill-dwelling noblewoman.
She is absolutely the type of woman readers will aspire to be, making her a character that is basically impossible not to root for.
Really, I only had one issue with this novel.
It was a happy ending, which isn't something to which I'm generally opposed.
I'm totally satisfied — usually thrilled, even — when all the pieces fit together and I leave the characters to whom I have become so attached in a warm, contented, safe, stable place.
But, in this case, it just didn’t feel right.
This entire novel was about the struggle and strife that typified the lives of women in the late 1800's.
It was about how, just be virtue of being women, ladies born and raised in this time would face often formidable challenges, regardless of their social station.
It was about how these challenges we inescapable.
But then, in the end, our protagonist did basically escape these struggles, happening into an unbelievably ideal situation that solved not just her problems, but the problems of those she loved.
It just...felt woefully unlikely.
Ultimately, it was too tidy.
Now, thinking about this conclusion from the perspective of an author, I could see how Macallister would be tempted to end her tale in this way.
I totally understand why she would want to see the characters she has birthed find happiness in a world where it was scarce.
And even more so how she may have wanted to give readers a little brightness in an otherwise gloomy tale. To leave them with a sign of hope, if you will.
But, even though I understand it, I just…can’t agree that it’s a fitting, realistic end to this otherwise truly remarkable read.
All things considered, this novel is strong.
And it’s important.
Whether you’re seeking a book featuring a fierce and fearless bitch to read during women’s history month, or you’re just sick of weak-ass women in literature, picking up this novel will provide the infusion of feminine literary power you seek.
It earns 4 out of 5 cocktails.
Have you ever found yourself wishing you were born in another era? If you could pick the century into which you were born, which would you select and why? Tell me about it in the comments, below.
Thank you, next.
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