Title: The Mad Girls of New York (A Nellie Bly Novel #1)
Author: Maya Rodale
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Genre: Historical Fiction
One Sentence Summary: It’s the late 1880s and women journalists are a rare breed, but Nellie Bly dreams of joining the ranks of male journalists by risking her life and sanity to uncover what really goes on in Blackwell’s, an insane asylum for women.
The Mad Girls of New York is an historical fiction novel that recounts Nellie Bly’s break into male-dominated newspapers in NYC. It paints Nellie as a headstrong, stubborn woman who will do anything to get the job of her dreams as well as the story, but who also has a softer side to her. I really enjoyed reading this fictionalized account of her time at Blackwell’s, especially since it was grounded in fact. Reading about the other women there was also fascinating. The one thing that I wasn’t a big fan of was one of the other POVs woven through. By the end, I had figured out why, but it just seemed so drawn out and, as a mystery, it was extremely weak. But The Mad Girls of New York was a surprisingly fast and easy read I really enjoyed.
In the late 1880s, Nellie Bly, a fearless journalist who dreams of working for a newspaper in New York City, leaves Pittsburgh to do just that. But, as a woman at a time where women were factory girls or sales girls or married and did as her husband told her, Nellie is turned away time and time again by male editors. Until she crosses paths with a distinguished woman who writes for the ladies’ pages at the World and who introduces her to other female journalists, one of whom gives Nellie an idea.
Nellie takes her idea to Cockerill, the editor of the World and tells him she will go undercover at Blackwell’s to uncover what really goes on there because the insane asylum is famous for not allowing any reporters inside. He, and the journalist whose interview she crashes, have her attention, but they clearly don’t believe she can do it. But Nellie is determined to prove herself, and, in the end, prove she can stay sane in a place that will threaten to turn her insane.
I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, but I am familiar with Nellie Bly, so this one caught my attention. I wasn’t expecting anything actually interesting, and just hoped it would be okay and explore the life of Nellie a bit, but The Mad Girls of New York really surprised me. Even though it’s historical fiction, complete with the speech and mannerisms of the people of that day, I felt it read more like contemporary fiction in terms of pace and ease of reading. It flowed well and was fun and interesting to read. The characters were well-written, the story was fascinating even though I knew how it ended, and the fictional take on it all meant it was a really fun and entertaining read. I never felt bogged down in historical details or that pains were taken for accuracy. It turned out to be an easy and surprisingly fast read.
I don’t know anything about Nellie’s personality or personal life, so can’t speak to any accuracy of her characterization, but I really enjoyed it. She’s headstrong and stubborn and will clearly do anything to break into a man’s world and do what she’s good at. At the same time, there’s a softer side to her that’s offered, a side of her that cares about others and cares about her own survival and well-being as well. Nellie really came alive to me, and I liked that, sometimes, she was cautious, careful to not overplay her role. It didn’t just reveal just how dogged a journalist she was, but also the prevailing view of women and their roles at that point in time.
What was really nice about The Mad Girls of New York was that it didn’t diverge or devolve into a commentary on how women were treated back then. I liked that it did highlight how miserable a time it was for women, but it never took over the story. Instead, it was mentioned as fact and the story played around with it to really highlight the historical period. It was interesting to see how little it took for a woman to be declared insane, but I do wish it had pursued the quack doctors line as they were the reason why so many women were summarily sent to Blackwell’s for doing little more than be women with minds. The Mad Girls of New York, though, really chose to focus on how Nellie survived Blackwell’s to tell the story of the gross mistreatment and to echo her first story as a woman journalist in NYC.
Even though I’m familiar with the general story, it was a lot of fun to read some details of it, with the story clearly reflecting fact as bits and pieces of Nellie Bly’s piece Ten Days in a Mad House were included. I hadn’t been acquainted with any details, so it was quite a surprise to read about how the women were actually treated. I liked how Nellie continually mentioned how torturous the experience was, though, at times, it did start to feel a bit repetitive. Still, she clearly had little else to ruminate on.
My favorite part was how other stories were included, and not just the stories of the women held at Blackwell’s. Their cases were miserable and infuriating, and I’m so glad I didn’t live back then. But their stories were woven in really well and I became just as invested in their fictional lives as I was in Nellie’s. What was really nice was to actually get diversity as two black women and their stories were highlighted. They were based on historical women and I liked that they were so consciously chosen and included and highlighted their success. But what I really liked was how Nellie found herself as part of a small circle of female journalists. They each took different approaches to their profession, but all had that devotion to telling a story, to pursuing it at all costs.
While I didn’t quite understand why Colton and Marion received their own POVs, it all really made sense in the end. Well, Colton’s made the most sense all the way through and it was fun to follow him as he tried to investigate Nellie. I really liked him as he seemed like an actual real human being who cared despite being a journalist. His blossoming relationship with her, despite its prickles, was so much fun, though I feel much more ambivalent about the hinted romance between Nellie and the mayor. I do know who the real Nellie Bly married, so I’m curious to see how that and her relationship, whatever kind of relationship it is, with Colton will be done. Marion’s POV was more confusing to me for much of the novel. She was pursuing a fluff piece for the ladies’ pages, but it had deeper ramifications, and I did end up enjoying how it played out. However, it just felt so drawn out that I was nearly bored by it, and definitely figured it out before either woman.
The Mad Girls of New York was a fascinating historical fiction read to me. I liked how it captured the spirit of Nellie Bly and was grounded in fact. I liked how fact was recreated in fiction and I could almost believe that what was in these pages could have actually happened like that. I liked reading about the women at Blackwell’s and about the journalistic rivalries between both the male and female journalists. This was an easy and fast read that did slow down at times, but not for long. I enjoyed the constant forward progress as well as what felt like Nellie’s slow unraveling as day after day beyond the seventh wore on and she could never be sure if she was going to be released. Overall, a very satisfactory historical read to me, and I look forward to reading more of this series.
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Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
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