Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

Goodreads: Blue Asylum
Source: ARC from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt from Shelf Awareness

Summary:After questioning the status of slaves as property instead of humans, Iris Dunleavy is sent to Sanibel Asylum by her husband and a Virginian court in order to relearn how to be a proper Southern wife.  She immediately sets her mind to determining how she can escape, whether by running away or proving her sanity to the stubborn superintendent, but the developing love between her and a Confederate soldier haunted by the war might force her to change her plans.

Review: Blue Asylum starts out very slowly, taking many pages simply to build the world of the asylum.  From the beginning, the book has set the reader up to believe this is an urgent tale of love and escape—but it never actually develops a sense of urgency.  Iris patiently allows the planning of her escape to take many months, and the relationship between her and Ambrose develops just as gradually.  In fact, it develops so quietly that the revelation a third of the way through the story that the two are in love is somewhat surprising.

Blue Asylum also fails to deliver on its most intriguing aspect—the question of what makes a person insane.  Iris’s sanity is never at stake; from page one it is clear she has been sent to the asylum by a mistake or as revenge by her husband.  Everyone else around her is clearly insane by some definition—eating buttons, thinking shadows are miraculous, and having fits.  (The exception of course, is Ambrose, who has PTSD, which makes his presence in the asylum reasonable for the time period but sympathetic for the modern reader.)  Somewhat disappointingly, Blue Asylum is not really about an asylum; it just happens to be set in one.

The book does have its strengths, however, and the characterization stands out. Hepinstall provides complex portrayals of a wide variety of characters—ranging from the conceited but rundown superintendent to his lively but neglected twelve-year-old son.  Each character is distinct and has an intriguing, often slightly tragic life story that will keep readers invested in the book.  Following their lives individually and as they overlap is a true pleasure.

The writing style also fits the book very well. It combines dialogue, description, and thought to create an atmosphere that reflects some of the confusion and disbelief that Iris feels.  The story at times can feel as though it is coming through a haze, and a plethora of memories emphasizes the sensation. Yet it works, particularly once the reader accepts that, although this book does address a lot of tough issues—including women’s rights, slavery, and love—it is calm because Iris is calm.

Blue Asylum is a thoughtful work, and readers who like books based on characters and the exploration of human behavior and nature will enjoy it.  Readers looking for a historical fiction based very heavily during the Civil War will be somewhat unsatisfied, as most of the action takes place in the isolation of the island.

Content Note: masturbation and some sex

Published: April 10, 2012


6 thoughts on “Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

    • Briana says:

      It was pretty mellow, which I found so surprising due to the nature of the content. A restful story about an escape from an asylum? But it has been accomplished!


  1. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I’ve been waiting for the review on this one. I still think I’d like to read it at some point. I do like reading about stories taking place during the Civil War, but I think the characters would intrigue me with how you’ve described them and the writing of the book.


    • Briana says:

      The characters were probably my favorite part. I did enjoy the book. I gave it a solid three stars on Goodreads. I think part of my hesitation to rate it higher came from the fact that it just wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s far more character exploration than plot, in my opinion, even though some pretty exciting things happen. And I was expecting more of a Civil War influence. What we do get are historical perspectives on proper behavior for women and on what is “insanity.” Apparently suffragettes are locked up.


    • Briana says:

      Thanks! I think it is a book that will appeal to a somewhat particular type of reader, and I wanted to try and present what type of reader that might be.


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