THE FOUNDLING by Ann Leary, Scribner/Marysue Rucci Books, 336 pages, $27.99
Recently I heard an author known for her beach reads discuss what makes a perfect mental getaway read. Her contention was that it has nothing to do with whether the book has a beach in it. Plot, not setting, is the key element. It should have a narrative so compelling that reading it seems to take no effort at all, and everything around you — your job, your problems, your plans, even the beach you may or may not be sitting on — magically disappears. The act of reading itself is the vacation.
Despite the no-beach requirement, beach reads often announce themselves with a woman wearing sunglasses on the cover. This is not the case with The Foundling, which sports the moody image of bare branches and a hulking Victorian building in shades of deep blue. It also has an introduction by the author explaining the historical threads that inspired her novel: the early 20th-century incarceration of “feebleminded” women and the disturbingly widespread support for the eugenics movement. Sounds serious, right?
Well, it is, but it’s also insanely fun, with fascinating characters, jaw-dropping plot twists, and a hair-raising caper finale that recalls the nail-biting climaxes of Ocean’s Eleven and The Shawshank Redemption.
The narrator of The Foundling is a smart, sardonic 17-year-old girl named Mary Engle. After her mother’s early death, Mary was raised for several years in a Catholic orphanage. When we meet her, she is living in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with relatives. The teacher of the secretarial class she is taking recommends her for a job with Dr. Agnes Vogel, who is passing through town on a speaking tour. Dr. Vogel is an elegant, attractive, suffers-no-fools type woman; she hires Mary on the spot, and they leave the next morning in her limo to the institution she runs in a rural part of the state.
Impressionable Mary has never met anyone like Dr. Vogel, and she easily absorbs the woman’s sense of mission: The inmates at Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age are being offered not just a healthy, invigorating lifestyle on a lovely farm, but protection from the rapacious men who would so easily take advantage of them, given their intellectual disabilities. At first, Mary worries she will die of boredom out in the sticks — her one potential friend, Gladys, is a bit dull. “Because I shared my bedroom and office with Gladys, and because she never shut up, I knew [her boyfriend] Hamish ‘Hammy’ Van Sutter more intimately than I’d known any man, and I’d never laid eyes on him,” she cracks. Fortunately, she soon meets the lively campus nurse, Bertie, who includes her in outings to speakeasies and dance halls in the nearby college town and introduces her to heartthrob Jake Enright, a local
Then one day, among the smelly, dirty “dairy girls” who do the farm labor, she recognizes someone she knew at the orphanage. It’s Lillian Faust. What could she possibly be doing there, Mary wonders. Feebleminded? Not possible. Lillian was one of the smartest girls in the orphanage. Because she was a foundling, a baby dropped off with no identification, the Irish nuns believed she would be blessed with special good luck. Clearly, that luck has run out.
The story unfolds from there, with plenty of reversals and reveals that keep the momentum high. As Mary struggles to make sense of what is happening at Nettleton State Village, where she is moving up into the circle of power around her idol Dr. Vogel, she runs into prejudices and deep-rooted fears of her own. She has a lot to learn. For example, there is a great scene at a dance hall where she finds out her new boyfriend, Jake, doesn’t go to church. If he went anywhere, he explains, it would be a synagogue.
So, do you mean ... you’re a ...
Jew. Yup.’ Jake said, grinning broadly.
We’d been leaning across the table to talk over the loud music, but now I drew back a little so that I could look at him anew. ‘I would never have known. I mean, you don’t really look like a Jew, do you?
This causes a little bump in the road of the relationship, as you might imagine, but it’s just one example of the clever ways the author develops the character of Mary and our relationship to her. Similarly, when Mary finds out the real story on her old frenemy Lillian Faust, her ingrained racism and sexism are challenged. 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.