Izzy Stone, seventeen years old and in a new foster home again at the start of a new school year, is still struggling with her mother's murder of her father ten years ago. Obviously her mother must be insane; it's the only explanation. But does that mean Izzy might go mad, too? Can she ever dare to marry and have children, or would she be passing along the madness, and putting whoever she loved at risk?
But right now, her new foster parents work at a local museum, and have asked her to help out with sorting and cataloging materials in the now-closed public insane asylum, the Willard. And in a steamer trunk in the attic, they find the journal of Clara Cartwright, committed there by her father in 1929, at the age of eighteen. Clara's "madness" was that she refused an arranged marriage, wanting to marry Italian immigrant Bruno, whom she loved and whom Henry Cartwright regarded as beneath him.
Over the next several weeks, Izzy gets caught up in Clara's story and learning what happened to her, while she struggles with being the new girl again, this time in her senior year, with fears that her mother's madness will affect her, and the horribly practical fear of what will happen when she turns eighteen, and the state will no longer pay her current foster parents, Peg and Harry, to give her a home and take care of her. They're the best foster parents she's had since her grandmother died when she was ten, and "aging out" means homelessness for many orphaned teens, so it's a real fear.
We get Izzy's story and Clara's in alternating chapters. They're both compelling and moving. I'm just about willing to swear I knew some of Izzy's classmates when I was in high school. The Kafkaesque horrors of early 20th century mental institutions is portrayed in its grimness but without undue melodrama, and there's an afterword noting which "therapies" were really in use in the early thirties, and which were earlier or later.
It all wraps up to a satisfying but not over-the-top conclusion.
I bought this book.