An enthralling historical novel of a compassionate and relentless woman, a cutting-edge breakthrough in psychiatry, and a nightmare in the making.
Since her brother took his life after WWI, Ruth Emeraldine has had one goal: to help those suffering from mental illness. Then she falls in love with charismatic Robert Apter—a brilliant doctor championing a radical new treatment, the lobotomy. Ruth believes in it as a miracle treatment and in Robert as its genius pioneer. But as her husband spirals into deluded megalomania, Ruth can’t ignore her growing suspicions. Robert is operating on patients recklessly, often with horrific results. And a vulnerable young mother, Margaret Baxter, is poised to be his next victim.
Margaret can barely get out of bed, let alone care for her infant. When Dr. Apter diagnoses her with the baby blues and proposes a lobotomy, she believes the procedure is her only hope. Only Ruth can save her—and scores of others—from the harrowing consequences of Robert’s ambitions.
Inspired by a shocking chapter in medical history, The Lobotomist’s Wife is a galvanizing novel of a woman fighting against the most grievous odds, of ego, and of the best intentions gone horribly awry.
Hi and welcome to my review of The Lobotomist’s Wife!
The year is 1933 and Ruth Emeraldine is assistant superintendent at the Emeraldine Hospital. An odd job for a woman in that day and age but Ruth adores her job and she’s fantastic at it. Her patients’ well-being is of the utmost importance to her, and mental health is an issue close to her heart, after her brother came back from the war with PTSD and ended up committing suicide. With Ruth showing zero interest in fashion or Manhattan’s social events, her mother has all but given up on her, convinced she’ll be an old spinster. But then she meets Dr. Robert Apter and her life will never be the same again.
If Ruth has one weakness, it’s wanting to do good for everyone, fix everyone, with an enthusiasm and an optimism bordering on naivety. When her new husband, the brilliant Dr. Apter, speaks of a revolutionary new technology that can do exactly that, of course she’s all in. But is this miracle cure all that it’s cracked up to be?
With its fascinating topic, its vivid writing and its well-rounded characters, The Lobotomist’s Wife was a joy to read from start to finish. Short chapters kept up the pace and I could feel the tension rising the more Ruth began to doubt her husband and his technique. And then of course there’s Maggie, who suffers from postnatal depression after the birth of her third child, and who, according to Dr. Apter, would be a perfect candidate for a lobotomy. Can you even imagine?! That storyline was absolutely nerve-wracking, I wanted to shout at her to run for the hills and never come back! Dr. Apter is clearly a man obsessed. What started out as a genuine wish to do good, turns rather nasty. The road to Hell…
Fascinating though it was, lobotomy was not the easiest subject to read about. I’m not squeamish at all, and none of the scenes are even remotely gory, but reading about lobotomies, especially the transorbital ones (the so-called ice pick method, through the back of the eye) and knowing this was actually performed on actual people, it just made me shudder. Especially when I found out that Dr. Apter was based on Walter Freeman II, the neurologist/psychologist who brought the lobotomy procedure to the US and was its biggest advocate. (Note that he was not a neurosurgeon, he had no business poking around in people’s brains!) I was shocked to read in the author’s note that the scene I found most harrowing, and that for me was proof that Dr. Apter was losing his marbles, was also based on a real event.
Disturbing but fascinating, The Lobotomist’s Wife is a gorgeous slice of historical fiction, showing the historical rise and fall of a supposed miracle cure in psychiatry and the fictional life and work of a strong, kind and big-hearted woman and her quest to save everyone she can. The Lobotomist’s Wife is an accomplished debut and I’ll be on the lookout for whatever Samantha Greene Woodruff comes up with next. Recommended.
Massive thanks to Lake Union Publishing and NetGalley for the eARC. All opinions are my own.