Book Review for “The Girl Puzzle: A Story of Nellie Bly” by Kate Braithwaite.
This new historical, biographical, fiction novel is about Elizabeth Cochrane, the investigative journalist of the late 19th century and early 20th century, who was better known as Nellie Bly. Apparently, Bly is a hot topic at the moment, since this is now the third novel that I’ve read that touches on Bly’s famous experience. The first was David Blixt’s novel of Bly’s earliest parts of her career, and the other one was Greer Macallister’s “Woman 99” where the main character is inspired by Bly’s story, and enters an asylum in order to save her sister who was committed to the institution. Thankfully, through her intense, and compelling prose, Braithwaite has given us a slightly different take on Bly and her life, as she portrays this woman not only as the true phenomenon that she was, but also as something of a conundrum.
Now, I probably shouldn’t do this, but it is hard not to compare two books about the same person, when you’ve read them in such close succession. Please indulge me here, since I’ll try to set out the facts and only then reserve my judgement of this novel based its own merit. The biggest differences between Blixt’s book and Braithwaite’s are as follows. Blixt begins his story of Nellie from her time when she was just starting out and then follows her career chronologically, focusing mostly on her visit to Mexico and her time in the insane asylum. Blixt also wrote Nellie using first person. Braithwaite, on the other hand uses two timelines. The first takes place later in Nellie’s life, as told by her assistant Beatrice Alexander in her first-person voice. When Beatrice is asked to type up Nellie’s account of her time in the insane asylum, the story shifts back to that period, using third-person voice.
Of course, there are pros and cons for both these approaches. For example, Blixt focusing on only Bly’s early life means he can now write a sequel (which I understand is in the works). Braithwaite’s straddling two different time periods, means that we get a slightly larger scope of Bly’s life. As for the points of view, while I initially balked that Blixt wrote his novel in first person (which isn’t easy for a man to do with such a strong female character), it worked, which was an achievement for me. However, I was also a bit surprised that Bly gives Beatrice to type up her more accurate account of her time in the asylum, but that it is written in third-person, while Beatrice tells her story in first-person. The latter didn’t bother me at all, but it seems to me that the former felt a bit strange. Surely if you’re writing your own memoir, you’d be writing it in first-person, no? I should also mention that I didn’t feel any inconsistencies between the two books regarding what Bly went through in the asylum, which obviously means that both authors did similar excellent research.
Thankfully, this didn’t bother me as much as the story went on, and although I still think this wasn’t the best judgement call, I also realized that Braithwaite probably did this in order to keep the two voices distinctive, which did work quite well. Despite this, and probably because I had read Blixt’s novel so recently, I found myself feeling impatient when reading through the passages of Bly’s ordeal from her early career. This wasn’t because they were hard to read about (although Bly’s undercover work revealed some true horrors of the mental health system of the late 19th century). It is the old – the story I got vs. the story I wanted. Now, don’t get me wrong, this book didn’t frustrate me like the one about Eliza Hamilton (which ended with Alexander’s death). To the contrary, all of the parts about Bly’s later life as told by Beatrice, were exactly what I was hoping to get. What Braithwaite gives us with these accounts from Beatrice is something totally different, which is a look into the last years of Bly’s life, and her interest in helping find homes for orphans and abandoned children. This is why I can’t truly compare Braithwaite’s book to either Blixt’s or Macallister’s novels. I just wish that Braithwaite had given me more of the older Bly and a bit less of Bly’s memoir.
What was most impressive with this book is the insights that Braithwaite gives Beatrice into Bly’s character and personality, and the reason she called it “The Girl Puzzle”. From these parts of the book, we feel that Bly was not just a journalistic genius (which she was), but also a flawed individual who could contradict herself in both word and deed, much like the fact that she had two names, and each one was a slightly different person. That, of course, makes her more human, more realistic than the woman who has become something of an idol to many aspiring female writers. This is all to say that even if you’ve read biographies of Bly or other biographical novels about her, you still might like this one, and you’ll certainly get something from it. That’s why I’m recommending it, and giving it a healthy four out of five stars.
Crooked Cat Publishing will release “The Girl Puzzle” by Kate Braithwaite on May 5, 2019. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks, Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me an ARC of this novel for this review.
One thought on “The Conundrum of the Phenomenon.”
An interesting comparison of two different approaches to the same subject. Thank you, Davida.