Reviews of The Foundling by Ann Leary

The Foundling

A Novel

by Ann Leary

The Foundling by Ann Leary X
The Foundling by Ann Leary
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2022, 336 pages

    Apr 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good House, the story of two friends, raised in the same orphanage, whose loyalty is put to the ultimate test when they meet years later at a controversial institution - one as an employee; the other, an inmate.

It's 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. She's immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women's suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she's hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary's decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Inspired by a true story about the author's grandmother, The Foundling offers a rare look at a shocking chapter of American history. This gripping page-turner will have readers on the edge of their seats right up to the stunning last page…asking themselves, "Did this really happen here?"

When we were little girls, after lessons and before prayers, Sister Rosemary, the night matron, read aloud to us. She sat in a lumpy old upholstered armchair in front of the stove, often with a colicky infant or two on her wide lap. We never grew tired of hearing the same few books owned by the orphanage. David Copperfield, Five Little Peppers, Pollyanna—there were one or two others, and for the rest of my life, when I reread these stories, all the characters spoke with Sister Roseamary's thick Irish brogue.

One hot summer night, when I was around six or seven, Lillian Faust returned to the ward with a plaster cast on her arm. She'd fallen out of the giant elm in the courtyard that afternoon and had been taken to the hospital. Now, her eyes were still puffy and red from crying, but as we crowded around her, she proudly showed off her cast like it was a trophy.

Sister Rosemary had been reading to us while giving a baby her bottle. She put down the book and said, "I hear you were...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. When we first meet Dr. Vogel on page 7, she uses many dog whistles in her speech that alert the reader that she's talking about eugenics and that her practices and positions betray a dehumanizing view of people with mental disabilities. What phrases did you pick up on as suspicious or concerning? What made them stick out to you? How do you pick up on language like this in everyday life?
  2. On page 77, Dr. Vogel explains to Mary, "Wild antelope drive the genetically weak, aged, or inferior members away, for the health of the rest of the herd... . Of course, we're not animals... . We must look after our weak and afflicted." How has eugenics historically couched racism, ableism, and sexism in compassion? What remnants can you find in modern-...
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BookBrowse Review


The Foundling by Ann Leary explores the exploitation of working-class girls at the time, whose so-called moral impropriety made them easy fodder for eugenicist experiments. At the same time, the story is packed with action, romance and drama — perfect for a little bit of escapism, or a break from watching TV soaps. Like a sweet candy with a bitter center, The Foundling is a feminist horror story wrapped up in a beach read. Leary is excellent at portraying the perversion of a feminist cause, showing how those who claim to support women's advancement can still perpetuate the patriarchal logic that has long kept women down...continued

Full Review Members Only (537 words)

(Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor).

Media Reviews

Los Angeles Times
Leary's novel is ultimately a hopeful one, in which empathy and critical thinking reveal the structural vulnerabilities of such pyramids — built as they are on fabrications, compensations and contradictions that eventually undermine their foundations. Leary is optimistic that reason will prevail.

The New York Times
The Foundling is Leary's first historical novel, and she has all the right instincts... Leary is too clever and too honest not to know exactly what she's doing; The Foundling arrests us precisely because its antagonist comes cloaked in the good intentions of progressive social reform... Book clubs, uncork your bottles.

The Washington Post
The Foundling turns a serious subject into a perfect beach read. [The novel is serious] 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.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Leary turns her mordant eye to the interplay of feminism, racism, and eugenics at a state institution for women deemed unfit to bear children in 1927...The reluctance with which Mary changes makes her eventual act of courage—against social conventions and despite the personal cost—all the more satisfying. Leary's wit complements her serious approach to historical and psychological issues in this thoroughly satisfying novel.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[G]ripping...Leary makes an engrossing drama out of Mary's shifting allegiance, and this ends with an impressive twist. Readers will rip through this tale of historical injustice.

Leary's richly rendered, tender tale of friendship and loyalty, based on her own family history, brings into sharp focus the horrors of such punitive institutions, which proliferated in early-twentieth-century America.

Author Blurb Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnolia Palace
Leary's latest is a stunning tale of corruption, compassion, and hope, and includes one of the best endings I've read in ages. She's reached back in history and uncovered a shockingly true story, one that resonates strongly today. Full of jaw-dropping twists and intriguing characters – you won't be able to put it down.

Author Blurb Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Wish You Were Here
Ann Leary's The Foundling is a compelling, shocking record of a too-hidden piece of history - when eugenics was commonly applauded as progressive social science…A stunning reminder that not much time has passed since everyone claimed to know what was best for a woman - everyone except the woman herself.

Author Blurb Laura Dave, New York Times Bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me
Ann Leary is a remarkable storyteller, and The Foundling is harrowing, gripping, and beautiful. You'll be thinking about these characters long after you turn the last page.

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Beyond the Book

Sybil Neville-Rolfe (1885-1955)

Sepia-toned portrait photo of Sybil Neville-Rolfe, turned at an angle and gazing away from the camera Dr. Agnes Vogel, The Foundling's complicated eugenicist arch-villain, has many real analogues in history. As the eugenics movement bloomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women played an instrumental role in how its ideas took shape. In Britain, Sybil Neville-Rolfe (née Sybil Burney) was the founder of the Eugenics Education Society, a project that sought to harness theories of biological evolution for its own vision of societal advancement. Neville-Rolfe's legacy is a dubious one; she aimed to eradicate poverty and took stances to protect and support women, but her racist, classist and homophobic beliefs led her to advocate for policies that were cruel and discriminatory. Many of her views are directly echoed by Dr. ...

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