Book Review: A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis

A dark and gripping tale of insanity and murder that kept me enthralled from cover to cover.

5/5 stars

cover a madness so discreet

Goodreads Description

Grace Mae knows madness.

She keeps it locked away, along with her voice, trapped deep inside a brilliant mind that cannot forget horrific family secrets. Those secrets, along with the bulge in her belly, land her in a Boston insane asylum.

When her voice returns in a burst of violence, Grace is banished to the dark cellars, where her mind is discovered by a visiting doctor who dabbles in the new study of criminal psychology. With her keen eyes and sharp memory, Grace will make the perfect assistant at crime scenes. Escaping from Boston to the safety of an ethical Ohio asylum, Grace finds friendship and hope, hints of a life she should have had. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who stalks young women. Grace, continuing to operate under the cloak of madness, must hunt a murderer while she confronts the demons in her own past.

In this beautifully twisted historical thriller, Mindy McGinnis, acclaimed author of Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, explores the fine line between sanity and insanity, good and evil—and the madness that exists in all of us.

My Review

WOW. I’d seen this book floating around the book blogging world and not thought much of it, besides that it had a great title and an amazing cover. I am SO GLAD that I decided to pick this book up because it blew my mind.

AMSD is dark. Set in an insane asylum in the mid/late 1800s (the specific historical time is never made clear), the story explores a variety of abuses that are barbaric to a modern reader. The book captures the horrific ways that society saw insane people; it is impossible not to think about our modern age and realize that some people have carried those prejudices forward.

I loved how perfectly McGinnis shaped the setting—there is very little world-building, she just throws you into the story and works from there. The historical elements really helped create a plot that was unique and moving. It’s honestly hard to describe how perfect the world-building in this book was; I was so absorbed in the story that I forgot that it was historical fiction. (I know that that sounds kind of weird.)

Originally, based on the cover and some parts of the blurb, I’d thought that AMSD would have paranormal elements. It doesn’t, but it made that clear from the beginning. Once I realized that the story’s darkness would come solely from real life scenarios, the story was even more intense.

Grace is an incredible protagonist: damaged but strong, with a love/hate relationship with emotions and a fierce loyalty streak. She starts off the book voiceless, traumatized into silence by the same event that got her pregnant and thrown into the asylum. (Her story was so vivid that at time, I forgot that I was allowed to speak.) Throughout the story, Grace’s character develops a lot, and not always in the positive direction. I loved the complexity of her arc, how I never quite knew if she was healing or getting worse.

I appreciated that McGinnis never beat around the bush about what happened to get Grace pregnant. Though it is never explicitly stated, from early on, characters are able to deduce what happened, keeping the reader in the loop. Grace’s rape is dealt with in a refreshingly straightforward way, with no mystery surrounding it (“well who did it” or “did he actually“) and no hesitation before condemning her rapist. For such dark subject manner, I don’t think I would have been able to read the book if part of the plot had involved dissecting or qualifying Grace’s trauma.

Thornhollow, the doctor that rescues Grace from the Boston asylum, was a fascinating character. Yes, he fits the stereotypical unemotional, Sherlockian mold, but for once, his character does so without being cliche, fake, or annoying to read about. I honestly believed that he saw emotions as pointless and damning, that he saw the world as facts and cause-and-effect only. His morality, especially when related to how he treated mental patients, was gray and murky, but I liked him for it. Also, his insight into what makes insane people crazy—which proves the sanity of a lot of the mental patients—was compelling, and fit well with the overall message of the story.

(Minor spoiler here, just skip this paragraph to avoid it.) I really wanted Thornhollow and Grace to end up together. All of their arguments and late-night wanderings—there was so much passion between them. However, when the book ended and Grace and Thornhollow were still just colleagues, I was okay with it. It is so refreshing to read a story where a male and a female with similar ages spend time together, fight with each other, learn about each other, and don’t fall in love. Allowing their relationship to stay platonic created interesting conflicts and made the sacrifices each of them made for the other more significant.

The other characters were vividly portrayed. Nell and Lizzie, especially, felt real and alive. They could always make me laugh, but they also had their emotional moments, a few of which almost drove me to tears. The dialect that McGinnis used for both of them was easy to read and never got in the way of the story, only enhanced it.

The plot of AMSD centers around Thornhollow teaching Grace about criminal psychology as they track down murderers. From that plot, lots of character-based plot lines branch off—basically my ideal plot set-up. The pacing is quick, but not break-neck, allowing you to enjoy the complexities of the story. There were a lot of heartbreaking moments, including a few moments that actually made me say “NO” out loud. The main mystery (focused on a serial killer) was interesting and unexpected, without being needlessly flashy. The ending broke and healed my heart all at once, leaving me emotionally and morally conflicted in so many ways.

I would recommend AMSD to anyone who is prepared for a dark and emotional roller coaster.

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