Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.
This poem, along with a quote from Edith Wharton, appears at the beginning of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell (2008) and, between them, completely summarize the book. Even so, O'Farrell makes the unfolding of the story worth following, however painful to read.
Iris Lockhart, a self-absorbed (my opinion here) woman living what she thinks is a life of freedom and independence (yet not even living the life she truly wants), learns that her grandmother Kitty, now suffering from Alzheimer's, isn't the only child Iris always believed. Kitty has a sister, Esme, living in an insane asylum, a place about to close. Iris is listed as the next-of-kin, and she needs to make decisions for a great-aunt she didn't even know existed.
We learn the story of what happened in the past to lead to Esme's incarceration mostly through Kitty's rambling, non-cohesive thoughts and memories and a little through Esme's memories.
Everything hit the point of no return when Esme's beloved baby brother and nanny die of typhoid fever in India, and she spends days alone with their bodies while her parents (as if they deserve to be called that) and Kitty vacation without them. The family returns to Scotland, and Esme is literally punished for talking about her brother. He's never mentioned again by the rest of the family, as though he never existed--yes, just a bit of foreshadowing there.
Between repressing her grief about her brother and the way that Kitty abandons her as Kitty becomes more and more like their parents, Esme becomes increasingly "different" and labeled as "oddball." Then two events on the same night when Esme is sixteen cause her parents to wrongfully commit her to an insane asylum, a place, in those days, one wouldn't send a rabid dog.
And there she stays for over sixty years, a number Esme can mark to the day, without even a visitor until Iris, who will have her entire life altered by spending a weekend with Esme.
With the possibly inevitable ending coming, I kept hoping for a miracle for Esme. Not possible, of course, after spending the majority of her life institutionalized.
This time, however short the remainder of her life may be, one just hopes that having Iris in her life is enough to at least keep Esme from being alone, as she was for over sixty years. And, yes, even though she's a fictional character, she seems that real.
I can't say enough how much I loved this book, and I can certainly see now why everyone in the U.S. seemed to be reading the book last summer.
To learn more, including reading a sample chapter, visit the author's site here.
My overall personal rating of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is an A.