The Mad Women’s Ball – Victoria Mas

Hello Book Lovers!

I’m back today to share with you another amazing book I’ve just finished reading. I feel like I am on a bit of a roll at the moment and like I’m making a good dent in my huge pile of books. Long may this continue!

The book I want to share with you today is The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas. This book has a stunning cover (there’s a theme starting…) and focuses on two strong female characters. Taking us back to Paris in 1885, this short novel packs a huge punch and has left me wanting more. I hope you enjoy it just as much as I did.

What’s it all about?
The Salpetriere Asylum: Paris, 1885 where the women are deemed mad or hysterical. However, things really are not as they seem and behind each woman lies a story of betrayal, misunderstanding and fear of what they really know. Under the control of Doctor Charcot, his public displays of hypnotism is enthralling for the audiences who appear. But what about these women? Why are they there? Why are they societies outcasts and who makes that decision?

The two leading ladies of the novel are Eugenie and Genevieve. Their stories become entwined as each woman needs the other in order to survive.

‘Madwomen fascinate and horrify. Were these people to visit the asylum for the late-morning rounds, they would surely be disappointed.’

We learn more about Genevieve first. The head nurse at the asylum, she is stoic and proud. She takes her role at the asylum incredibly seriously and feels like she really is supporting the advance in medicine by working with Doctor Charcot. The women are becoming particularly agitated because of the annual Lenten Ball (Mad Woman’s Ball) the event where the rich come and observe these weak women. For the women, it is their small window of opportunity – to be seen and heard. Head Nurse Genevieve has her own quirk, like the women she cares for – she writes letters to her dead sister. There are hundreds that are stored in the bottom of her wardrobe. It means she feels close to her and she still can live on.

‘She gets up and opens the wardrobe, in which several cardboard boxes are stacked next to the dresses on their hangers. Genevieve picks up the topmost box. Inside are more than a hundred envelopes like the one she is holding.’

Eugenie is incredibly gifted and what you would call, a woman before her time. When I was reading this I was completely taken with her but also terribly afraid for her. My fears would soon become reality. The first incident of note was when she found her grandmother’s pendant after being guided by her dead grandfather. After some forceful probing mixed with love and respect for her grandmother, she reveals that she can see dead people. She confides in her grandmother but ultimately this would turn out to be a mistake. Despite this, Eugenie knows that she isn’t alone and that other people can do what she can, but it is all too much for her father who sends her to the asylum and disowns her.

“No one talks to dead unless the devil is involved. I will not have such things under my roof. As far as I am concerned, I no longer have a daughter.”

Meanwhile at the asylum, spirits are high as everyone is getting ready for the ball. Whilst setting in, the two women are not quite sure how to take each other. However, Eugenie knows about the letters Genevieve has been writing to her sister. Alarmed at first, curious second, Genevieve is unsure what to do. She’s torn by wanting that connection with her sister but also considering her position within the hospital. She absolutely cannot be a part of this ‘madness’. And yet…

‘Eugenie’s eyes are closed now, her tone changed. Although her voice is the same, she speaks in a monotone as though reciting a text that has no meaning. Terrified, Genevieve retreats, pressing herself against the door.’

The relationship between the two women change and they are no longer nurse/patient. Genevieve believes her and feels that she needs to repay the kindness shown to her. The two women help each other, sacrifice themselves for each other. The ball isn’t going to the be the same this year. Eugenie will finally get an opportunity for a fresh start away from the family that betrayed her. Genevieve makes the ultimate sacrifice.

“Existence is fascinating, don’t you think?”

Final Thoughts
This book is incredible. We see the horrors of how women used to be treated, just because they thought differently or believed differently. We see the value of friendship and sacrifice. We see the need and want for spirits to guide and support. We also see the fears of the time too. Life was very different in 1880s Paris and despite this being a fictional piece, it is clear that it is influenced. The overall thing I enjoyed most was the fact that women reign supreme and stand tall despite being different and wanting to challenge boundaries and constraints of the time. These 200 pages are beautiful and essential. What a stunning book.

Big love xxx

Book Bingo Reading Challenge 2022! The Lost Apothecary – Sarah Penner

Hello Loves!
It’s finally Easter break! 🐣 I am honestly so relieved and I had to admit, I was questioning if I would make it – I’ve never felt so stressed or exhausted… The mornings this week have been tough – but I did it and now I have two weeks of rest, recovery, reading and napping. Hopefully the weather as well will last – there’s nothing better than Spring sunshine. Easter is a huge event for my family too so I’m really excited about that also! Good things are approaching!

Anyway, this post is to hopefully make amends for not being successful in my reading challenge last month. I picked the category: Read a book of the month (Waterstones or equivalent). I’d started four books for this and failed them all for different reasons. Then, I realised that I’d read the books from the Waterstones book of the month so I then branched out to research more books of the month. I stumbled across the Goodreads list and the rest, as they say, is history. The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner was on my shelf after being gifted by a friend and that decided it. Fate some may say! I absolutely LOVE this book so I hope you all do too!

On with the review!

What’s it all about?
First of all, the book is visually stunning. The purples and gold really make it a picture on your shelf. Moving away from the look of it, the plot is also stunning too! I love this book and it will be one that I gift to my friends as well. It’s a book that you have to read.

Each chapter alternates between the three main women: Caroline, Nella and Liza and their respective time periods, modern day and 1791. Despite being over two hundred years apart, the lives of these two women are about to be linked forever. The novel opens with Nella, a brief chapter about a letter, a desperate woman, a remedy and a history to the apothecary. Her mother’s before her, the shop historically was a place for women to come to cure their maladies. However, things had taken a much more sinister turn: murder. What had led Nella to this point? There’s only mere references, but a broken heart is evident. As a result, a decision was made, no other woman would hurt like she did.

‘Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish…and dark secrets.’

Number 3 Back Alley is the geographical location of the shop. However, it is hidden and is only known about by word of mouth. The front is an empty room with a sack of grain and a small hole for Nella to see who is there. Behind the scenes were huge amounts of herbal ingredients, glass jars, grinding stones and a notebook with the names and ingredients administered over the years. Nella’s mother at the start, with her continuing the work of the apothecary. One day, a charming and interesting girl arrives with a note from her mistress. Her husband was having an affair and that woman needs to go. Instinctively, Nella knew what to do but the child unnerved her. Death and children shouldn’t mix. The remedy = a poisoned chicken egg.

‘My mother had held tight to this principle, instilling in me from an early age the importance of providing a safe haven – a place of healing for women. London grants little to women in need of tender care; instead, it crawls with gentleman’s doctors, each as unprincipled and corrupt as the next. My mother committed to giving women a place of refuge…’

Caroline found herself in London for what should have been a romantic weekend for her ten year wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, things are not good with her husband James as she discovered his infidelity. Finding herself in London meant that she needed to make her own way and her own plans. Curiosity getting the better of her, she meets Alfed, a mudlarker. In the dead of night she heads towards the Thames, unknowing what she will find but the call is much stronger than she realised. She’s given a quick piece of advice: look for inconsistencies and finding something is fate. Despite the smell, she finds a quirky glass vial which raises more questions than answers. She feels a pull to find out more. Her London trip is now focused around this small, glass item and its story. Alf also introduces Caroline to Gaynor, his daughter at the British Library. A budding historian herself, the two become the best of friends.

‘Places and people, I thought to myself. I could feel the change in myself at this very moment: the discontent within me seizing the possibility of adventure, an excursion into my long-lost enthusiasm for eras past.’

As the novel progresses, the lives of these three women become more intertwined. Caroline is busy asking questions and researching the contents of the glass vial, Nella and Liza are busy trying to limit the damage that is being caused. Whilst all mixtures before have gone well, the issue of Lady Clarence, her husband and his mistress did not. The wrong person died and the bottle had the same image of a bear and the address on the back. This discrete apothecary, fill of its potions and its secrets was now at risk of becoming public knowledge.

‘At present that seemed like a dream; with my mistake, I might have doomed her and all of us within the pages of her book. I thought again of the many names I’d traced in the register a couple of days ago, I had darkened the ink strokes in order to preserve and protect the names of the women… Now, I feared I hadn’t preserved and protected anything at all.’

The end of the novel is simply stunning. No spoilers here but the I adore the end – the loyalty, the companionship and most of all, the love and respect between these women. This history of the past, the women and their stories have helped shaped Caroline’s future. Gaynor becomes a true friend of Caroline, she (re)discovers who she really wants to be outside the confines of a marriage and the history of the women and their need for the apothecary shop at 3 Back Alley lives on. The title may be the ‘lost’ apothecary, but Caroline has certainly made sure it is found now.

‘I remembered Batchelor Alf’s words on the mudlarking tour, about how finding something on the river was surely fate. I hadn’t believed it at the time, I now knew that stumbling upon the tiny blue vial was fate – a pivotal turn in the direction of my life.’

Final Thoughts
There are not enough words for how much I loved and enjoyed this book. Sarah Penner is a name I will be keeping an eye out for in the future, that’s for sure. This book is perfect for showing the strength of women, what it means to stand by each other and the lengths women will go to to protect those around them. It also shows the devastating effect of being hurt and how that changes people. After all, it was that betrayal that changed Nella. I also loved that the action truly centres around a book that has been passed down from mother, to daughter and now to Caroline. Stunningly beautiful, for me this book is a masterpiece.

Big Love all xxxxx