Review: “What She Left Behind” by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Left BehindOkay, here’s the deal. I really wanted to like What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman. A co-worker suggested it and said she thought it was wonderful. And I did like parts of the novel. Plot-wise it was (mostly) entertaining to the point I wanted to see how the train wreck ended. And you can definitely tell that Wiseman did research into mental institutions and the like. But…I don’t know. It lacked what I perceive to be a larger theme. It has lots of thematic concepts–bullying, women’s rights, mistreatment of those with mental disorders, identity, acceptance–but I think those were smallish themes that certain chapters stressed more than others, never quite encompassing the book as a whole.

The main problem, besides the lack of a well-rounded theme, is the lack of connections between the two main characters, Izzy, a 17-year-old in 1995, and Clara, an 18-year-old in 1929. The idea is good: Izzy, working with her foster parents in an old mental institution, finds the diary of Clara in her steamer trunk. She thinks that by reading this diary, she might be able to understand what makes people insane. Why does she want to know this? Well, she’s in foster care because her mother shot her father in the head with his rifle when she was seven. Awful, right? Her mother’s in jail for the crime, but Izzy has never understood WHY her mother did what she did, because all of her memories of her father are wonderful. Of course, it doesn’t help that Izzy never visits her mother in jail to ask this question, mainly because she fears her inheritance from her mother is going to be insanity.

Sooo, this didn’t work for me. I liked Izzy as a character (mostly). She has faced many struggles in her life and has seemed to come out on top of them. And she faces even more in her new school, where she is bullied mercilessly by the bitch drama queen, Shannon, whose boyfriend wants to be Izzy’s friend.

SIDEBAR: I also had an issue with Shannon. Why would a school let a child run roughshod over an entire school? I mean, I guess it happens, but Shannon even went over the heads of teachers, causing havoc and mayhem in class. In the nineties, this girl would not have frequented school (because she would have been suspended A LOT) or would not have been as popular as she is described. At least, that’s my opinion. And her bullying. Damn. I mean, she was vicious and mentally unstable, and people followed her like puppies, even her boyfriend, Ethan, who becomes friends with Izzy. They all make excuses for Shannon’s behavior, which is absurd.

Anyway, back to Izzy. She was probably my favorite character, honestly. But I didn’t get how reading the journal of a mentally ill patient would help her figure out the cause of her mother’s temporary insanity in killing her father. Of course, she discovers that Clara wasn’t really insane; she was just sent there by vile parents when she disobeyed their edicts.

Then, there’s Clara. *Sigh.* I dislike it when I feel like lecturing a character for not being smart or logical. She really went to go pack a huge steamer trunk when she was running away. That she couldn’t carry. Also, I feel like she, more than she did, should have known her parents and how they would react to her lower-class boyfriend and her rebellion. Everything that happened to Bruno was because Clara couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of: Play the game the way the want you to play it until you have an actual PLAN! Planning was not Clara’s strong suit; rather she acted on instinct and teenage angst. Every time she opened her mouth, I wanted to scream, “Just say what they want you to say until you get out! Then, you can make an actual plan!”

But she didn’t. It was heartbreaking, really. She seemed smarter than her actions showed, and I think that’s what bothered me the most. She again and again made the same mistakes. Plus, would police really take a daughter of a well-respected banker away for disobeying the parents? (Wiseman establishes that Clara’s parents have some kind of vague control over the police because of their wealth.) Would a well-respected banker rather have his daughter in a state mental institution for an indeterminate amount of time? Wouldn’t this reflect badly? Also, where the hell are all of Clara’s friends? Why do they not try to help her? Also, this was 1929. Great depression hits, and there is the perfect excuse from taking Clara from the nice institution she’s in to the hellish one the state runs. Seemed convenient and far-fetched. Oh, and the length of time she’s there? I don’t know if I believe that, either.

And then there was the ending, and a lot of things were tied up in a nice little bow with very little character change. Maybe that’s the problem. These characters don’t seem to CHANGE at all or learn from their mistakes, which is problematic. Don’t we want dynamic characters? I mean, I like characters with flaws, and I understand the irony in making a character so delusional as they never reflect on where they’ve been and what they’ve done, going on with their same mistakes because of indifference or a lack of intelligence or a lack of understanding of the nuances in complex situations. But Wiseman isn’t doing this. I think she’s trying to make both Clara and Izzy reflective, but she never really succeeds.

But maybe I’m looking at this through the lens of Orphan Train by Christina Bake Kline, which was thoroughly researched with believable, dynamic characters, and because of that, I’m judging this one to harshly. Maybe if I hadn’t just read Orphan Train I would really have liked this one.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Should you read it? I do think the historical aspect of the mental institutions is interesting and made me want to look at the conditions of mental patients, then and now, but I don’t know if that will hold everyone’s interest, especially with such frustrating character development.

I guess that’s all for now, my dears. Until next time, I hope you enjoy your reading. And if you pick up or have read What She Left Behind, let me know what you think!

Ta-ta,

HMichaele

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