The Girl Puzzle: A Story of Nellie Bly

Written by Kate Braithwaite
Review by Sarah Hendess

In this slim but engaging novel, Braithwaite treats readers to an in-depth look at Nellie Bly’s famous ten-day stay in Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. The story alternates points of view between Bly in 1887 and her assistant, Beatrice Alexander, in 1921. Bly tasks Beatrice with typing her memoirs of her time in the asylum, and through these memoirs, Beatrice tries to better understand the woman she knows best as an advocate for New York City’s orphans.

Through the alternating points of view and time periods, the reader understands Bly as a whole person. We see both her sensational stories about life in the asylum and the charitable work she undertook when the spotlight no longer shone on her so brightly. The author portrays a passionate advocate for better treatment of women and children but also an ambitious figure who fought to keep her name in the papers.

I encountered only two stumbling blocks with this novel. The first was that Braithwaite, a Scotswoman, is not entirely successful in writing in American English. Occasional British phrases and spelling (“in hospital,” “travelling”) pulled me out of Progressive-Era New York City. Second, the last quarter of the book contains a six-page information dump of Bly’s family history. While this information is useful in understanding Bly, the presentation is awkward. Braithwaite would have done better to intersperse this information throughout the novel rather than slapping the reader with it all at once.

Overall, though, these quibbles are not enough to prevent me recommending this book. The Girl Puzzle is an intriguing investigation into Bly’s inner life, and I hope Braithwaite will follow up with a novel about Bly’s trip around the world.