The Second Life of Mirielle West

Written by Amanda Skenandore
Review by Bryan Dumas

Los Angeles, 1920. Mirielle West seems to have it all. A movie star husband, parties with the rich and famous, and two wonderful kids. But that all comes to a crashing halt when she’s diagnosed with leprosy.

Secreted away by train to the U.S. Marine Hospital 66, or Carville, in Louisiana, Mirielle is forced to come to terms with her diagnosis. Once there, Mirielle—assuming the pseudonym Pauline Marvin—struggles to both adjust to life in the hospital confines as well as accept her predicament. All she can think about is getting out, even if it means escaping through the fence, and getting back to her family. Even though doing that would subject them to ridicule and a social stigma of being kin to a leper.

Despite being a “high hatted egoist” who only cares about herself, Mirielle slowly makes friends with a few other patients—a roommate and workmate Irene, Frank, a young, orphaned girl Jean, and even a few of the nuns. She is determined to find a cure for leprosy and even helps organize parties with Frank. Though, the stigma of her condition and her melancholy before arriving at Carville weigh heavily and Mirielle often lapses back to her old, egotistical self.

Skenandore sheds light on a disease and history often overlooked in U.S. history. Though not as famous as the colony on Molokai, Carville was a vibrant home for many suffering from Hansen’s disease, and most chose to remain residents long after their 12 negative tests. Skenandore’s careful attention to the history, community, and stigma resonate perfectly throughout the novel. Though many of the characters are thinly drawn, this works for a place where everyone lives behind a pseudonym, though it does hinder emotional ties to secondary characters. A well-researched and deftly crafted story of identity and strength.