Book Review: The Ballroom

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“Set over a heatwave summer in 1911, and based loosely on the author’s own family history, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.”

An intriguing premise to the story is it not? Many thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for sending an ARC of this much anticipated read by Anna Hope. I have her debut novel, Wake perched on my shelf (yes, yes, it’s not read yet, I know!) so when The Ballroom was announced as forthcoming, I knew it was something that just had to be read.

Overall, The Ballroom was a good read. It didn’t exactly knock my socks off, but it was quite enjoyable where its strength for certain is the cast of characters encountered within. Told using three points-of-view: Dr. Charles Fuller, Ella Fay and John Mulligan, their interaction in the summer of 1911 inside Sharston Asylum will hold significant and life-altering consequences for all.

Ella is confused and disorientated and finds herself roughly handled inside a place filled with almost 500 women, nurses and looks eerily like a prison. She discovers she’s been sent to the Sharston Asylum. All this for breaking a window inside the mill where she worked? Ella has no family and no one to speak for her, so once discovering where she is, she is very afraid she will never get out. She constantly searches for an escape and on her first morning makes a run for it. Unfortunately she falls, but meets the eye of another patient, a man named John Mulligan. John is outside on work duty, digging graves for those that have found one of the three ways out of the asylum.

Sitting in a room filled with strange women, Ella meets Clem – the only girl to become Ella’s friend and trusted confidante inside Sharston. She says the only ways of getting out of Sharston is if: you die; you escape; or you convince them you are sane enough to leave.

Charles Fuller is one of the doctors at the asylum. He feels his is one of the more progressive doctors and is against the norm of the published research into treating lunatics.  Wishing to show there are alternative methods for treating the patients, he hopes to catch the eyes of his superiors by presenting a paper of his research into how music helps to heal and reform. He takes notice of John Mulligan, the silent and brooding patient that speaks to and interacts with no one. He wants to use John as his study to show how music has changed and reformed him allowing him to leave the asylum and return to society. It becomes Fuller’s obsession.

On Friday nights, the patients deemed well and behaved enough are allowed to go to the ballroom for dancing with other patients. Here, Ella and John reunite, and begin to secretly correspond and meet. Charles watches with growing dismay as his test subject completely ignores and dismisses his presence. Obsessively so. Great consequences result from these evenings that began in the ballroom for Ella, Clem, Charles and John.

The Ballroom has moments exhibiting early 20th century line of thought on asylums, lunacy and treatment of patients. There are fleeting however, and not a significant crux to the story. They are quite loosely presented, as are the ballroom scenes which one would think to be a centrepiece to the story, considering its title. It is almost as though the story could have been set in a “regular” setting – the asylum isn’t a significantly detailed focus to this story, in my opinion. Perhaps for these reasons it is why I considered The Ballroom to simply be a decent read. It is with certainty the cast of characters that made the most out of the book for me and held my interest until the end. They are solid, well-developed, and highly interesting characters. Anna Hope develops each of the background stories of Ella, Clem, Charles and John very well. It is because of this that my interest remained in what was overall a fairly bland story?

Being able to read the background of Charles Fuller’s childhood, reasons for his being at the Sharston Asylum and his own steady descent into madness made for particularly pleasing reading. John’s history as well and most especially Clem’s tragic tale rounded it out. Unfortunately, I found Ella’s character to not be as strong as it should have been, she seems almost secondary when you consider she is presented as a primary character. So, for all these reasons, (I apologize if it seems a bit of a ramble) The Ballroom was good, but nothing more than a simply pleasing story to read.

I sure am missing the “knock-my-socks-off” reads I was enjoying all throughout the summer. My Fall reading has so far just been mediocre and I’m craving a super-great read!!

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