In 1920, Rosalie Rayner is on the verge of a rich career as a psychologist. Recently graduated from Vassar and enrolled in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins, she’s offered a research position with the celebrated John B. Watson. He’s charismatic, fearless, and a pioneer in the field of behaviorist psychology. But today Rosalie isn’t remembered for achievements as much as she is for controversy: the infamous Little Albert study she conducted with Watson, where they conditioned a baby to fear; their headline-grabbing love affair and marriage that led to both being ostracized from academia; and their co-authored parenting book, which encouraged detachment and a businesslike relationship between mother and child. Framed by Rosalie’s regrets and memories as she nears death, this is a novel of an enthusiastic life lived in controversy.
This is a book well set in its era. Historical details are plentiful and interesting, bringing the 1920s and ’30s to vivid life, not only in setting, but also in attitudes. The Watsons – both Mr. and Mrs. – are difficult characters to like. They are at times brilliant, selfish, and ambitious. This reader did not always agree with their actions, but it is to the credit of the author that she’s penned characters so complex and rich that they engage the reader. Ill-famed figures, like Rayner and Watson, are often redeemed through historical fiction when given a chance to tell their side of the story, but Romano-Lax doesn’t apologize for her characters. She creates a story peopled with very human characters who, while they don’t always learn from their mistakes, acknowledge those mistakes and their place in history.