I won this book through Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

What She Left Behind tells the story of Izzy, in the 1990’s, and of Clara, in the 1930’s. Izzy has been bounced around from foster home to foster home after her mother shoots her father, and the grandmother she had been staying with dies. Izzy believes her mother must be mentally ill because why else would she shoot her husband? Clara is a wealthy, intelligent, strong willed woman who gets sent to the Long Island Home for Nervous Invalids when she refuses to marry a man her father has chosen for her.

Clara’s story was very hard to read. I know back then the treatment of women was a lot different than it is now. If a woman disobeyed, she must be ill. So she got shipped off to the nearest facility. In Clara’s case, she is first sent to the Long Island Home and is treated somewhat gently, but the fact that no one will believe she is not ill is absurd. After the stock market crash, her father can no longer afford her stay there, and she gets sent to Willard Asylum. This place is torture. The nurses and doctors treat the patients inhumanely, and like Clara figures out, if you’re not insane when you go in, by the time they’re done with you, you will be. From ice baths to stale food, to having to sit in what’s called the “sun room” for hours on a hard bench…it’s enough to drive anyone mad. Clara promises herself she will not succumb to the horrors of the asylum but will make her way out. The way Ellen Marie Wiseman described the different wards of the asylum made me feel like I was actually there, seeing these poor people walking around in a haze of medication and lost dreams. (I actually had a nightmare one night about the asylum…LOL)

Izzy is living with the best foster parents she’s ever had. Her mother is in prison for life because she shot Izzy’s father. Izzy believes her mother is mentally ill and her greatest fear is that she will become her. Izzy deals with a lot of bullying at school from a girl who knows what pain truly is, yet she still bullies. I applaud Izzy for overcoming her fears about her mom and deciding she is her own person and can make her own decisions. While helping her foster parents gather information from Willard Asylum to be placed in a museum, Izzy uncovers Clara’s journal. She begins to piece together that Clara was not really insane, and she starts to wonder if she misjudged her mother…

There were times I was rejoicing with Izzy, crying with Clara, and wanting to punch the bullies who tortured Izzy at school. The author did an excellent job of bringing the characters to life and making me feel their emotions!

I enjoyed how Ellen Marie Wiseman intermingled the stories of Clara and Izzy. At first I was thinking, “Okay, so Izzy finds Clara’s diary and realizes she was never insane. What makes this interesting? How are these women really connected?” As  I continued reading though, I realized just how important it was for Izzy to figure out the ending to Clara’s journey so she could work on her own journey.