After less than a year of marriage, Anna’s rigid clerical husband decides that she isn’t a suitable wife for him, and has her committed to a mental institution. She’s perfectly sane, but that doesn’t matter to anyone – not to the fake doctors whose signatures let him commit her to the hospital, not to the employees, not to the real doctors in the hospital, and certainly not to her husband. Anna is determined to escape, but she has no idea how, until she meets Lucas St. Clair. St. Clair is a young doctor who is attempting to use photography to discern the true nature of patients’ souls. Will his pictures show Anna as the innocent she is or the madwoman everyone believes?
I have to start off this review by saying I didn’t really manage to connect with this book. There were plenty of interesting elements, but they never combined for me into something that I genuinely liked much. It sounds like such an interesting premise; although we know that pictures aren’t really the key to the soul, when photography was a new art, people weren’t really sure what its purpose was. The idea that a doctor would try and use it to diagnose mental patients sounded very interesting to me. Moreover, the idea of an innocent woman condemned to one of these mental hospitals held a certain amount of appeal, even though I already knew that Anna’s life was going to be terrible once she was committed.
The main problem, unfortunately, was that I didn’t really connect with Anna at all. The reason that she’s deemed unsuitable by her husband is because she went to the seaside on her own to try and give aid to some shipwrecked sailors. To be perfectly honest, this does seem like a strange thing for a young woman in Victorian England to do without telling her husband. She even sells some of his things to get money for the sailors and proceeds to stay in an inn on her own without any supervision. Her behavior by no means justified the punishment, but she seemed foolish and naive, which made it hard for me to like her. I often say that I don’t really need to like a character to enjoy a book, but a lot of this story hinges on feeling sympathy for Anna, and it’s not really a complex character study that might justify her strange behavior. There is a reason for it, but not until the end of the book, and not quite earth-shattering even then.
While I didn’t fall in love with it overall, there were certain elements that I did like. One was the different ways that the women were constrained – maybe not appropriate to say I liked it, but it showed the limitations of a woman’s role once a man was in control at the time. The asylum is run by a man with a wife and teenage daughter, and both the wife and daughter are constrained because of what the men in their lives do. The other “patients” are obviously prisoners and generally with little wrong with them. Even the female employees in the institution have no control over their lives, and the one who does seize control comes to an unfortunate end. Anna’s own imprisonment is just one way that a Victorian woman could be trapped by the men around her.
With some interesting ideas, The Painted Bridge could have been an excellent book. For a different reader, it could be an exceptional read. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for this one.
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