During the 1950s in Quebec, teenagers Maggie Hughes and Gabriel Phénix fell in love. Their romance comes to an abrupt end when Maggie’s parents find out their fifteen-year-old daughter is pregnant. When her daughter, Elodie, is born, Maggie is forced to give her up for adoption. A few years later, a new law results in orphanages being converted into mental hospitals because funding provided for patients is greater than what is provided for orphans—and Elodie is one orphan among many who is declared mentally ill. It also serves to complicate things when Maggie begins searching for her daughter.
What I Liked
I’m a sucker for fiction based in fact, to some degree, and that’s what got my attention about this novel. The tragedy of the Duplessis Orphans is reflected in Elodie’s story, and the abuse suffered by the orphans at the hands of the nuns in the book mirrors what happened in real life to orphaned children who were falsely diagnosed as mentally ill. It was disturbing to read, but I appreciate the fact that it stayed true to the spirit of the actual history.
I liked the character of Maggie a great deal, and easily connected with her on an emotional level. I knew how her pregnancy with Elodie would end, of course, but it was still heartbreaking to read about that time of her life, and understood completely the depth of her grief in the years that followed, as well as her desire to reunite with her.
Elodie easily won a place in my heart, as well, but most of what I read about her left me feeling indescribably sad. It was one of those things where—every time she went through something difficult (and it happened a lot)—I just wanted to jump inside the book and give her a hug. (Come on now… y’all know what I’m talking about here, right readers?) I always have a hard time reading about kids who aren’t loved and cherished as they should be, and her portions of the story always made me want to cry.
What I Didn’t Like
Nothing to say here about the book itself. As far as characters go? There was a particular nun in the story that I truly despised—as I was meant to, I’m sure—which means she was written exceedingly well!
Filled with vivid characterizations and devastatingly emotional situations, Goodman has created a story that will be hard to forget. If you love reading books that are based partially on actual historical events, then this is the book for you. Just be sure to keep a box of tissues handy. You’ll need them!
About the Book
Philomena meets The Orphan Train in this suspenseful, provocative novel filled with love, secrets, and deceit—the story of a young unwed mother who is forcibly separated from her daughter at birth and the lengths to which they go to find each other.
In 1950s Quebec, French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility—much like Maggie Hughes’ parents. Maggie’s English-speaking father has ambitions for his daughter that don’t include marriage to the poor French boy on the next farm over. But Maggie’s heart is captured by Gabriel Phénix. When she becomes pregnant at fifteen, her parents force her to give baby Elodie up for adoption and get her life ‘back on track’.
Elodie is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system. It’s a precarious enough existence that takes a tragic turn when Elodie, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, is declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages. Bright and determined, Elodie withstands abysmal treatment at the nuns’ hands, finally earning her freedom at seventeen, when she is thrust into an alien, often unnerving world.
Maggie, married to a businessman eager to start a family, cannot forget the daughter she was forced to abandon, and a chance reconnection with Gabriel spurs a wrenching choice. As time passes, the stories of Maggie and Elodie intertwine but never touch, until Maggie realizes she must take what she wants from life and go in search of her long-lost daughter, finally reclaiming the truth that has been denied them both.
About the Author
JOANNA GOODMAN is the author of four previous novels, including Canadian bestseller, The Finishing School. Her stories have appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Ottawa Citizen, B & A Fiction, Event, The New Quarterly, and White Wall Review, as well as excerpted in Elisabeth Harvor’s fiction anthology A Room at the Heart of Things.
Originally from Montreal, Joanna now lives in Toronto with her husband and two kids, and is the owner of the Canadian linen company Au Lit Fine Linens.