Book Review – The Lobotomist’s Wife by Samantha Greene Woodruff

Expected publication date, 1st February 2022

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Set in the 1940s and 50s, The Lobotomist’s Wife follows New York heiress and hospital administrator, Ruth Emeraldine, as she finds herself at the forefront of mid-century mental health.

Having lost her brother to suicide, Ruth’s raison d’être is to provide care and compassion to the mentally ill and, although not a doctor herself, she’s very interested in new and innovative treatments as they become available.

Upon hiring neurologist and psychologist, Robert Apter to the hospital staff, Ruth finds in the goateed medical man a kindred spirit, a love interest, and someone with the knowledge and skills to make a real difference to those under her care. But, with his invention of the radical lobotomy, and its evolution into the one-hour “ice pick” lobotomy (which, alarmingly, doesn’t require a surgeon but is the sort of operation Robert can perform in his, or anyone else’s office), will the power go to his head? How long will it take for Ruth to realise that her husband is at risk of becoming untethered? And, should a person disagree with a doctor, how long before he starts thinking of you as a potential patient for his “miracle cure”?

A fascinating read, crisply written, with memorable characters and a real-life historical basis. I love medical talk – my mother was a nurse at Bart’s at a time when they had both Matron and rats, so I know a little of the period if not the location.

I think we all know that lobotomy is a barbaric, grisly, and imprecise treatment which, historically, rendered patients childlike or catatonic, but which certainly took their personalities away, so reading about the time when it was first developed, and how wonderful a surgery it promised to be, was enlightening and frightening in equal measure. It’s strange to think of such an operation being considered a miracle, but indeed, it was. I must admit, with some shock – given my pop-culture, eighties background and our celebrity-saturated society, that I hadn’t known that Rosemary Kennedy (JFK and RFK’s sister) had been lobotomised in 1941, at the age of 23, with heartbreaking results. And without reading this book, I might never have known.

Once again, we have the question for books clubs at the end, which I don’t care for. That said, my old book club in Devon appears to have disbanded so maybe we should have looked at the questions as a means of binding ourselves together?

Anyway, an amazing debut, a fascinating subject, and utterly compelling characters. A triumph.