It's 1927 and 18-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. She's immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel. Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women's suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care. Soon after she's hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary's decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.
Leary doesn’t pull any Gothic punches ... Leary is in full command as the story spirals to the kind of harrowing climax — blizzard raging, phone lines cut — that forces Mary to stake her moral ground ... Leary’s first historical novel, and she has all the right instincts, by which I mean she inhabits Mary without modern conceit. Yes, the speakeasy slang and the gin fizzes are there, but any competent hack can recreate the sounds and sights of the past. Leary does something more daring — she asks you to root for a protagonist who comes equipped with the orthodoxies of her own day. Engle isn’t some magically enlightened dream girl who sheds the pixie dust of contemporary social justice on the benighted bigots of yesteryear. She is on a journey, as we say, which gives her moment of reckoning its power. If The Foundling lacks the sly, delicious wit of Leary’s previous books, it’s only because Leary is such a virtuoso that she doesn’t indulge herself at the expense of Mary’s characterization ... arrests us precisely because its antagonist comes cloaked in the good intentions of progressive social reform. Leary pins her cautionary tale on the portrait of Vogel herself and her iron conviction that she’s doing the right thing.
It’s hard to pick a time when a novel like Ann Leary’s The Foundling wouldn’t speak to where we are ... Leary does a brilliant job of showing how the need for emotional attachment...can cloud a person’s judgment ... Leary’s novel is ultimately a hopeful one, in which empathy and critical thinking reveal the structural vulnerabilities of such pyramids — built as they are on fabrications, compensations and contradictions that eventually undermine their foundations. Leary is optimistic that reason will prevail.
Insanely fun, with fascinating characters, jaw-dropping plot twists and a hair-raising caper finale ... The story unfolds...with plenty of reverses and reveals that keep the momentum high ... When Mary finally blossoms into a real heroine, it's a well-earned and richly satisfying fictional moment ... Yes, The Foundling is a harrowing story of our sexist, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic past, with certain striking and depressing resemblances to the present day. It’s also a beach read. Bring your own sunglasses.