The Mad Girls of New York
by Maya Rodale
April 26, 2022 · Berkley
The Mad Girls of New York is a fictionalized retelling of the real-life reporter Nellie Bly’s breakthrough investigation into The Women’s Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. The novel is at its best when it sticks to the facts and when it keeps its focus on Nellie and women that she meets. It suffers when the attention shifts to a rival reporter, the fictional Sam Colton.
In both this book and in real life, Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) moved to New York City in 1887 after working as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She finds herself unable to be considered for employment by any of the New York papers until she pitches a story to The World that only a female reporter can pull off. Nellie, working undercover, will get herself committed to the infamous Women’s Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, where she will investigate the asylum from within. She will be released by her employer after seven days and will write the story down. At least, that’s the plan.
As is often the case for me with historical fiction, I found the afterword to be the most interesting, since it covers this chapter of Nellie Bly’s real life and talks about the inspirations for supporting characters in the book. Nellie is a compelling character who meets a variety of interesting, strong-willed people, and her ordeal in the mental asylum is both horrifying and suspenseful. I was definitely swept along by the plot, even though I knew how things would turn out. Nellie’s efforts to get a job, and her efforts to land the asylum expose, are rendered in gritty but engrossing prose.
The book falters when it turns its attention to Sam Colton, a fictional rival reporter who appears to be set up as a love interest should this book become a series. I don’t know what Nellie’s love life was like except as regards her marriage (she married a much older man when she was thirty-one and shifted her attention from journalism to business). As far as the book goes, I felt that Sam’s involvement diminished Nellie’s efforts to make her own way, and I had no investment or interest in his character. The romance is limited to some flirting, a date, and mutual attraction, but it feels contrived and frankly patronizing. The real Nellie did not require dashing young men to assist her. She was fine on her own.
There’s also a side plot involving the mystery of what happened to the wife of a prominent citizen. This storyline is very loosely inspired by another Kickass Women, Elizabeth Packard. I wasn’t interested in the mystery, and I felt that the portrayal of the missing wife does an injustice to the indomitable woman that Packard actually was.
When this book sticks to what Nellie Bly actually did and experienced, it’s electric, because her life and experiences were incredible. The book does a great job with showing how her mental state deteriorates once she is admitted to the asylum, and why. In Nellie’s own, actual words, which are quoted in the novel:
“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
This frustration comes through loud and clear in the engrossing text of The Mad Girls of New York, which gives Nellie agency even as she feels increasingly desperate.
Above all, this novel succeeds when it portrays women talking to other women and falters every time it widens its gaze. As a romance fan, I love a good love story, but in this particular book the romantic angle simply doesn’t fit. I did not care about whatever Sam was doing and I resented being pulled away from Nellie, her fellow asylum inmates, and other female reporters that I did care about. Meanwhile, Bly’s real book, Ten Days in a Madhouse, is still makes for compelling, and tragic reading.