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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

The Madwomen of Paris

Narrator: Kiiri Sandy

Random House Audio

ISBN: 9780593158005

Publisher: Random House

Publication Date: 07/11/2023

Format: Hardcover

My Rating: 4.5 Stars (ARC)

Two women fall under the influence of a powerful doctor in Paris’s notorious women’s asylum in this gripping historical novel inspired by true events, from the bestselling author of Wunderland.

When Josephine arrives at the Salpêtrière asylum, she is covered in blood, badly bruised, and suffering from amnesia. She is quickly diagnosed with what the Paris papers are calling “the epidemic of the age”: hysteria, a disease is so baffling and widespread that Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, the asylum’s famous director, devotes many of his popular public lectures to the malady. Charcot often uses hypnosis to prompt his patients to reproduce their hysterical symptoms, and to his delight, Josephine proves extraordinarily susceptible to this unconscious manipulation. He is soon featuring the young woman on his stage, entrancing her into fantastical acts and hallucinatory fits before enraptured audiences and eager newsmen—many of whom feature her on their papers’ front pages.

Laure, a ward attendant assigned to care for Charcot’s new favorite, knows that Josephine’s diagnosis is a godsend. Life in the Salpêtrière’s Hysteria ward is far easier than in its dreaded Lunacy division, from which few inmates ever return. But as Josephine’s fame grows, her memory starts to return—and with it, images of a terrible crime she’s convinced she’s committed. Haunted by these visions, and ensnared in Charcot’s hypnotic web, she starts spiraling into seeming insanity. Desperate to save the girl she has grown to love, Laure begins to plot their escape from the Salpêtrière and its doctors. First, though, she must confirm whether Josephine is truly a madwoman, doomed to die in the asylum—or a murderer, destined for the guillotine.

Both are dark possibilities—but not nearly as dark as what Laure unearths when she sets out to discover the truth.

My Review

Jennifer Cody Epstein returns following Wunderland with her latest, THE MADWOMEN OF PARIS, a beautifully crafted and well-researched historical fiction— based on actual events regarding the cruel and misogynistic mental health system of late 19th-century Paris.

Heartbreaking, two women fall under the influence of an influential doctor in Paris's notorious women's Salpêtrière asylum.

After Laure Bissonet's father loses his medical practice, he dies in debt. His house is taken, separated from her sister and leaving Laure without a home, causing a breakdown and lands in the hysteria ward of Salpêtrière—Paris's massive asylum for women. After recovering, she lacks the skills necessary for proper employment in the outside world. She attains a trade-out whereby working as a resident attendant provides her room and board.

When Josephine Garreau is admitted to Salpêtrière and under her care, Laure feels connected. She is a red-haired beauty and quite intelligent. Upon arrival, she is covered in blood, badly bruised, and suffering from amnesia—suicidal.

She is diagnosed with what the Paris papers call "the epidemic of the age"—hysteria, a disease so baffling and widespread that Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, the asylum's famous director, devotes many of his popular public lectures to the topic and behaviors.

Women were sent to the asylum for anything from sexual assault, rape, childhood traumas, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, mental illness, and being strong-willed— while not looking at the abuser.

Josephine begins working with neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot with his public lectures. He and Sigmund Freud used and abused her and other women students' behavior under hypnosis for selfish purposes, putting them on stage to showcase their theories of female hysteria. Charcot uses hypnosis to prompt his patients to reproduce their hysterical symptoms using manipulation, gaslighting, abuse, and demeaning physical and mental damaging tactics.

As Josephine's fame grows due to the hypnosis, media, and lectures, her memory slowly returns—she has haunting images of a terrible crime she committed. As the two women grow close, Josephine claims to have killed her abusive employer before she arrived at the asylum. Is she spiraling into insanity?

Is Josephine a madwoman with dark possibilities —who will die in the asylum or a murderer? Are Charcot's tactics making Josephine look insane, or is it true?

Laure is desperate to save her friend and begins plotting their escape from Salpêtrière and the horrible doctors. Laure is convinced that Josephine is not insane—together, they must find a way to escape.

As told from Laure's POV, she could not be hypnotized, so she was of little assistance to Dr. Charcot. Laure and Josephine are strong, well-developed female characters and I enjoyed how the author wrote the story and the bond between the two. A time when men had all the power and women had little rights.

The author masterfully and seamlessly blends fact and fiction, meticulously researched. I was glued to the pages and appreciated how the author concluded the story and her author's notes, research, legacy, and additional reading and resources. Told with compassion and sensitivity, I highly recommend it.

It is haunting, disturbing, and challenging to read at times, a well-written tale of a dark time with an obsession around women, mental illness, and hysteria before women's rights. Sadly, the unfair and unjust treatment of women at the hands of doctors using them for their recognition.

Inspired by actual events and historical figures, THE MADWOMEN OF PARIS is a fictional reimagining of Jean-Martin Charcot and the women in his care at the Salpêtrière. You will remember these women long after the book ends and how we perceive mental illness today.

Thanks to Random House for an ARC via NetGalley. All opinions are my own. #RandomHouseInfluencers

@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

Pub Date: July 11, 2023


“Epstein has achieved her goal of immersing readers in the ‘stranger-than-fiction’ universe of late-19th-century Paris. At a time when women’s reproductive rights are under threat and people with unexplained medical conditions are routinely gaslit, The Madwomen of Paris provides a fascinating look back at a condition with modern-day resonance.”

—Science Magazine

“This beautifully crafted historical from Epstein evokes the cruel and misogynistic mental health system of late 19th-century Paris. . . . Combining elegant prose, artfully chosen historical details, and convincing characterizations, this haunting narrative showcases Epstein at her best.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Laure and Josephine’s story reflects the raging obsession that people had with hysteria. . . . It speaks to the dangers of treatments used on patients and the vulnerable positions in which they were placed. . . . A gripping historical novel that describes the treatment patients received from Dr. Charcot at Salpêtrière.”


About the Author

Photo credit: Julie Brown

Jennifer Cody Epstein is the internationally bestselling author of The Painter from Shanghai, Wunderland, and The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, which won the Asian/Pacific American Honor Award for Literature for Adult Fiction. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Self, Mademoiselle, and others. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and an MA in international affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Epstein lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters. WEBSITE

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