THE SECOND LIFE OF MIRIELLE WEST
GENRE: Historical Fiction
RELEASE DATE: July 27, 2021
In this thought-provoking and sensitive novel, inspired by the true story of a Louisiana leprosy hospital where patients were forcibly quarantined, acclaimed author Amanda Skenandore tells an extraordinarily timely tale of resilience, hope–and the last woman who expected to find herself in such a place…
1920s Los Angeles: Socialite Mirielle West’s days are crowded with shopping, luncheons, and prepping for the myriad glittering parties she attends with her actor husband, Charlie. She’s been too busy to even notice the small patch of pale skin on the back of her hand. Other than an occasional over-indulgence in gin and champagne, which helps to numb the pain of recent tragedy, Mirielle is the picture of health. But her doctor insists on more tests, and Mirielle reluctantly agrees.
The diagnosis–leprosy–is devastating and unthinkable. Changing her name to shield Charlie and their two young children, Mirielle is exiled to rural Louisiana for what she hopes will be a swift cure. But the hospital at Carville turns out to be as much a prison as a place of healing. Deaths far outnumber the discharges, and many patients have languished for years. Some are badly afflicted, others relatively unscathed. For all, the disease’s stigma is just as insidious as its physical progress.
At first, Mirielle keeps her distance from other residents, unwilling to accept her new reality. Gradually she begins to find both a community and a purpose at Carville, helping the nurses and doctors while eagerly anticipating her return home. But even that wish is tinged with uncertainty. How can she bridge the divide between the woman, wife, and mother she was, and the stranger she has become? And what price is she willing to pay to protect the ones she loves?
One thing I love most about historical fiction is how it makes me smarter about certain periods of time or events or people. Before reading The Second Life of Mirelle West, my experiential knowledge of leprosy was limited to Biblical lepers and an episode of Monk. After turning the final page, I can say I now have a deeper, more compassionate view of the people who suffered from it. While I don’t have to endure nearly the stigma or hopelessness or visible illness that patients with leprosy did historically, I do know what it’s like to have a life-changing disease with no known cure and to be willing to try just about anything for the promise of restored health. More than just words on a page, the patients in this story connected with me on a human level, from their emotions to their resilience and everything in between.
Mirielle is a complicated protagonist with a great deal of character growth as the novel progresses. Yet, just like nonfictional people, sometimes that growth regresses before it finally sticks. These ebbs and flows in Mirielle’s time at Carville made her all the more realistic, and I appreciate the author’s choices in shaping her character this way. Admittedly, Mirielle isn’t always that likable but she is relatable when the reader allows herself to imagine her own reactions if what was happening to Mirielle should happen to her too. Putting yourself in Mirielle’s high heeled shoes will stir your compassion and soften some of Mirielle’s rough edges.
Bottom Line: Imagine going to the doctor for a simple burn or an allergic reaction and being immediately isolated and taken away from your husband, your children, and your comfortable Hollywood life to live in a leper colony on the opposite side of the country with little to no explanation. Imagine the emotions you would be experiencing – denial, rage, grief, fear, disgust, regret. Now you’ve got an idea of what our protagonist is facing in The Second Life of Mirielle West. The history is fascinating and disturbing, all at once, and I immediately wanted to learn more about this time of medical science and social stigmas. Even against the backdrop of an illness that has had significant medical advances in the last 100 years, you begin to realize that human nature never really changes, a fact that makes this novel infinitely more relatable than it first appears to be. An intriguing testament of the will to survive and the power of perspective.
(I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the publisher. All views expressed are only my honest opinion.)
My Rating: 3.5 stars / liked it!
Reviewer’s Note: Readers may want to be aware that there is considerably more cursing & profanity in this book than those I normally review here on this blog. It’s not rampant, by any means, but it’s definitely more than I personally prefer.
Amanda Skenandore is the author of Between Earth and Sky, winner of the American Library Association’s 2019 Reading List Award for Best Historical Fiction, and The Undertaker’s Assistant, released from Kensington in July 2019.
She grew up in the mountains of Colorado and sang and danced her way through 68 cities on both sides of the Atlantic with the service organization Up with People before starting college. Her love of historical fiction started early with the stories of Kenneth Thomasma, Mark Twain, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
When she’s not writing, Amanda works as an infection prevention nurse. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband and their pet turtle Lenore.
Other Books by Amanda Skenandore
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