by Patrick McGrath

Paper Book, 1997




New York : Random House, c1997.


A woman whose husband is a doctor working in an asylum has an affair with a patient, a sculptor who killed his wife from jealousy. When he escapes she follows him, but his jealous fits send her back to her husband. The sculptor is caught, the doctor changes jobs, but that is not the end of the story. One day she will rejoin the sculptor, this time as a fellow-patient.

User reviews

LibraryThing member coffeeandabookchick
This is my first time reading a Patrick McGrath story. It will not be my last. I don't know how I haven't come across his work before, and I feel I have to catch up on all that I've missed out on.

Normally, I finish a book and immediately pronounce to myself whether it was good or bad, and then I'm off to the next selection from my burgeoning bookshelves. It's been awhile, however, since I closed the pages of a story and had to sit and reflect for a few moments afterwards. Without question, this was an excellent book, and I needed more time to think on the very nature behind the story, the characters, and events. Needless to say, I brooded and ruminated on the ending for quite some time.

Asylum, by Patrick McGrath has done all of this. It has all the elements of a story that I like -- a haunting setting in the gloomy and sweeping English countryside, a dark love affair, secrets, and ambiguity.

Stella is the mother of a young boy, Charlie and the wife of Max, an esteemed psychiatrist at a maximum-security institution for the criminally insane just outside of London, England, in the late 1950s. Her day to day life of wife and mother is mundane, and her husband really doesn't have the drive or passion to keep her interested. Only a few patients are granted access to the grounds around the house on the institution, to work on the garden or to redo the old conservatory, with a watchful group of staff nearby. Unbeknownst to all, though, Stella becomes the lover of an incredibly dangerous patient, Edgar. He's quite an artist, but he's also destructively jealous -- his unending stay in the institution was determined because he killed his wife in a brutal and mutilating manner, apparently because she was seeing other men. Stella, however, still finds herself uncontrollably drawn to him and caught up in the passion of this bizarre love.

This is an absolutely fascinating story and it is incredibly written, told through the perspective of another doctor at the institution, the older and wiser Dr. Peter Cleave. I initially thought I wouldn't care for this character, but I ultimately found that not only was it necessary in order to describe a general understanding of the mind -- the breakdown of Stella, the depth of manipulation by Edgar, and the ultimate weaknesses of Stella's husband, but it also explained the neurosis and psychosis of the characters. The insight Dr. Cleave provided was so critical to understand how these fictionalized people became completely devoid of reality only to succumb to the obsession everyone represses -- the ability to become thoroughly self-obsessed, whether or not it destroys innocent lives.

With Peter telling the story, in some scenes almost clinically, it created a much more haunting feel and I felt completely entrenched in the story. Several times it seemed to intensify so sadly and in such a disturbing nature, that I couldn't fathom it to turn more grim than it already was, but the author was able to continue down that path even further. Peter provides a trusting credibility that lends quite a bit to the pleasure that I had in the twists that occurred. I was mortified, angry, heartbroken, and completely engrossed in the story.

Patrick McGrath has created a suspenseful psychological thriller of obsession with oneself. It is haunting and dark, deeply erotic in some scenes, and altogether disturbing. Highly recommended, and I will be on the lookout for more Patrick McGrath books.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
There is a certain style of novel that always captivates me. Usually British, it is set either pre- or post-war, and the characters are mainly upper-class. They live in a bubble removed from the outside world, and their actions thus cause devastating rippled effects within their isolated community. E.M. Forster wrote novels like this, and so too, I have discovered, does Patrick McGrath. At least, this one is.

The insular, bubble-like world that McGrath has created in Asylum is reflected in the three main settings of the novel. The story opens at a large, Victorian-era asylum for the criminally insane in the English countryside, where Stella, the unfulfilled wife of one of the hospital’s psychiatrists, begins a dangerous love affair with an inmate, Edgar Stark, a psychopathic sculptor who decapitated his wife. From there, the action moves to a slovenly garret room in the industrial section of London, and then to the desolate moors of north Wales. These settings reflect the characters’ situation: isolated from the world, unable to release their emotions in anything but destructive ways, existing in a fragile bubble always in danger of shattering.

This story is about obsession. Soon after starting the affair with Edgar, Stella finds herself growing more obsessed with him and taking more risks. It is unclear whether Edgar is just using her to find a way to escape from the hospital, or whether he is equally obsessed. Even after he does disappear and the affair is discovered, the damage is reparable; everyone around Stella wants to preserve the bubble they live in — until she follows Edgar to London and sets in motion a chain of events with an inevitably tragic outcome.

Stella relates the story of her obsessive love affair to her friend and psychiatrist, Peter, the narrator. Peter and the reader remain unsure whether she is hiding the truth to manipulate him, whether her obsession continues despite everything that happens as a result of the affair. Eventually, the reader discovers that Peter, ostensibly the objective narrator looking in from the outside, harbors an obsession as well, which colors how he sees and describes Stella. We are left with the question of whether Stella was actually responsible for everything that happened, or whether her obsession was a sickness she couldn’t help acting upon.

This is a fast read, suspenseful, erotic and horrifying. Despite the ambiguity of the story, it is also very satisfying gothic horror and psychological suspense.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
Stella is the beautiful wife of Max Raphel. She lives with her psychiatrist husband and son Charlie at a large inpatient psychiatric facility in England. Max’s hopes of becoming superintendent of this facility are dashed when his wife runs away with Edgar Stark, a patient who had been hospitalized for murdering his wife. Dr. Cleave, another psychiatrist at the same facility, narrates the story and tells us what happens to Stella from the point of view of both a psychiatrist and a friend.

I liked the way the author tells a story, but it is this particular story I didn’t like. Parts of the story were simply not believable. Too many breaches of professional ethics within the tale kept pulling me back from getting truly involved with the characters. This turned into a story that I wanted to end because I couldn’t see it going anywhere. And wasn’t Brenda (Max’s mom) an annoying character?!
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
This reminded me of Madame Bovary in a lot of ways. Stella is portrayed as a bored woman, trapped in a marriage that doesn’t come close to fulfilling her. Unlike Mme. B, she doesn’t actively tear down her husband. Instead, she starts this affair with Stark. She doesn’t believe that this man who so captivates her could have possibly done what he did (which we aren’t told in detail until the end). Stark uses her to escape and later sends for her.

It was pretty creepy. The language was terrific though. Not too poetic and not too stark. Nice flow and description of Stella’s encroaching madness. The dreams. Her screwing of the landlord of their house in Wales. She was out there and didn’t care. Although, even then she was just as careful to conceal what she was doing as she was when she was screwing Edgar at the hospital. For all her madness, she knew what she was doing had to be concealed.
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LibraryThing member daizylee
I love an unreliable narrator. And I love neo-gothic fiction. And everybody loves a good story of sexual obsession. Throw all that together here and you've got a great book. It reminded me of those old-fashioned adultery novel like The Awakening or Madame Bovary, and that is quite a compliment.
LibraryThing member kmaziarz
Stella is the bored wife of an ambitous young psychiatrist, Max. Max, hoping to become the director of the insane asylum at which he works, unwisely neglects his wife in favor of his career. Stella, left almost entirely to her own devices with only her 10-year-old son for company most days, soon forms a most unhealthy obsession with a patient at the asylum. Edgar Stark, a charismatic and turbulent artist, was institutionalised after brutally murdering and mutilating his wife in a fit of insane jealousy. Now he is considered a trustworthy patient and allowed to work relatively unsupervised on a project renovating the grounds. It isn’t hard for the two to sneak off for their trysts, and it isn’t hard for Edgar to sneak into Stella’s home, steal Max’s clothing and keys, and make his escape. Stella soon joins him in London, where the two live a bohemian, but secretive and hidden, lifestyle until Edgar’s insane and murderous jealousy begin to show itself Again. Stella returns to Max, who has lost his job but refuses, for the sake of their son, to abandon his wife. Taking a new job in a remote hospital in Wales, he moves the family into a small, run-down home where Stella has nothing to do but mull and brood and drink herself into oblivion. Eventually, she ends up back in the origial asylum, but as a patient this time; her situation has gone from bad to much, much worse.

Narrated by one of Max’s colleagues at the asylum, a man who has his own designs and whose affection for Stella may prove the downfall of them all, the story is dark, mesmerising, and just as twisty as the minds of its characters. The final act may prove a let-down for some, but most will be satisfied.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
Asylum is a story about the consequences of obsessional love. In this dark novel, the wife of a resident psychiatrist at an asylum for the criminally insane becomes deeply infatuated with a very disturbed inmate who murdered his wife. When he escapes, she follows him to London, and his madness unravels in ways that deeply affect everyone involved in their past. None of the characters in this book is likeable. Stella, the wife, is despicable, her psychiatrist husband is a weak "mama's boy," and the peripheral characters are without redeeming qualities. The novel is narrated by Cleave, another psychiatrist with his own agenda. Patrick McGrath is certainly a master at displaying the dark side of human nature.… (more)
LibraryThing member grammarchick
Psychiatrist's wife meets mental patient at an institution in the 1950s. Tawdry affair ensues. What wasn't cliche was horribly pointless and depressing and by the end I felt like some hospitalization myself. It felt like something I'd be forced to read in a dreary "let's look for deeper meaning in plain old crappy writing" class. Will NOT be revisiting this author.… (more)
LibraryThing member jayne_charles
Competently written but ultimately rather dry novel about a psychiatrist’s wife who becomes romantically involved with one of her husband’s patients. I felt sure there must be some reason for the whole thing being narrated at some remove by another of the psychiatrists at the mental hospital - who by his own admission didn’t personally observe very much of what went on, and was relying on things he was told. I suppose there was, in a way, but I can’t be sure I totally understood it.… (more)
LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
It is difficult to rate this book. Beautifully written - yes for the most part. Utterly convincing? No. A psychiatric hospital that holds an annual dance for staff members and patients? I'm sorry, I don't find this believable. Much of the drama hinges on this event but it would have been better without it. Overall, an enjoyable, fun read though I couldn't really take it seriously, because it was so dramatic. Very silly depiction of how artists live, compared to criminals and degenerates. What I did like - illustrating how mentally ill most psychiatrists are and how little difference there is between them and their patients, much like criminals and those who are prosecuting them.… (more)
LibraryThing member Abigayl
In this amazing book by Patrick McGrath, the reader gets to watch the slow and painful descent of a woman, Stella, into insanity. Stella is a regular, if bored, woman, living with her son and psychiatrist husband, who soon finds herself obsessed with a dangerous patient - a man institutionalized for life because of his gruesome past. As Stella delves deeper into her obsession and runs away with the patient, her life is twisted in front of her and the effects of her decision, her life with a dangerous mental patient, have dire effects on her own mind,

The author has created an amazing story. As with any scary story, as I fully believe this qualifies as, there is truth in the way this woman's mind works even as she begins to lose control. Seeing those similarities in yourself, and reading what could happen, what did happen, with this character brings the situation to life in a real and terrifying way.

This is definitely my favorite book. Why? Because it scared me to no end. It was days before I could stop thinking about this story, and feeling the same awful feelings as when I was reading it. But I can not wait to read it again. I would recommend this book to anyone that loves a good, disturbing story.
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