Published by McClelland & Stewart on September 6th 2016
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“Unlike music, excessive reading has been shown to be dangerous for the female mind.”
The Ballroom often feels lush in nature but is quite simple really. It’s a tale of falling in love and of obsession centered during the time when an individual can be institutionalized against his/her will for almost any reason. Break a window = crazy. Grieving the loss of your child = crazy. You get the picture.
While reading this book, I was reminded of another great book about a woman being institutionalized against her will. The title is “What she left behind”. It’s another great book which I encourage those reading this review to check out!
In this book, Ella, a young woman who has had to work hard her entire life, breaks a window in the factory she works in. Even though she promises to somehow pay for the window, she is institutionalized. She is mad you see; no normal woman would ever break a window! There is also Clem who has a love of reading and often refuses to eat. She is hospitalized by her family and has been released and re-admitted again. There is John, a man grieving the death of his daughter, institutionalize for melancholy and Dr. Fuller, a doctor and musician who has weekly dances for the “good” patients where they must dance with each other whether they want to or not.
“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
An asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors is hardly the place one would expect to find romance. The men and women are kept apart. The men get to work outdoors while the women remain pale from working indoors. But through the weekly dances, love blooms and madness grows. Hope springs forth in the most unlikely of places. This story of love and obsession is told through three character’s POV – Ella, John and Dr. Fuller’s.
The writing is beautiful, hopeful and heart breaking all at the same time. There is injustice here: being institutionalized, having your freedom revoked and your life turned upside is upsetting to say the least. With little hope of release, how does one pass the time, cope, and live a life?
Dr. Fuller is an interesting character who at first, I liked and admired for his use of music to uplift spirits and give people the chance at socialization. Soon, his character begins to change -his feelings on reading BOO! HISS! and his own downward spiral show a man with secrets and troubles of his own.
Dr. Fuller is not the only one to change during this book. Ella and John both change as well. As they experience hope, wistful feelings, romance and acceptance, their lives grow but can they ever be together in a place built to keep them apart?
It is sad to say that the treatment of patients in the asylum is realistic for how people in institutions were treated back then. When anyone could deem you insane if you did not do as they said. Women fared much worse than men. Reasons for admission taken from the “Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia from 1864 to 1889 included laziness, egotism, disappointed love, female disease, mental excitement, cold, snuff, greediness, imaginary female trouble, “gathering in the head,” exposure and quackery, jealousy, religion, asthma, masturbation, and bad habits. Spouses used lunacy laws to rid themselves of their partners and in abducting their children.” That is only to name a few. I am sure the laws and criteria were similar in other countries as well.
I found this book to be sad, hopeful, heart breaking and thought provoking. The writing is eloquent, and each point of view flowed beautifully into the next. It’s a cruel word, these characters lived in. The Author’s note at the end describes her reasons for writing the book which I also enjoyed reading.
This is not always an easy read but a rewarding one with an emotion evoking epilogue!