The author recently announced that the upcoming third edition of the book will be radically different from the previous two releases. This is a review of the second edition, so anyone interested in buying the upcoming version should keep that in mind while reading this review.
The greatest strength of the book is Emilie Autumn's distinct dry humor mixed together with brutal honesty. Her frustrations with unhelpful procedures are very believable, as her highly personal experiences with stigma both within the medical community and during the events leading up to her attempted suicide are very poignant. Even when surrounded by professionals who are supposed to be “helping” her, she is utterly alone. Her manic (and suicidal) depression doesn't make her any less intelligent or aware of what’s going on around her—an important fact that's often overlooked when discussing the mentally ill.
Unfortunately, her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. Her writing encapsulates her "in the moment" thoughts and feelings, which means it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between melodramatic whining and legitimate criticisms. Further complicating matters is that Emilie Autumn frequently treats everything with the same level of scorn and disdain, especially early on in the novel. Her cold and judgmental attitude towards some of her fellow "inmates," for example, is disturbing and almost defeats of point of writing a relatable account about being a misunderstood mental patient in the first place.
The idea behind Emily-with-a-y's fictional Asylum is actually quite ingenious: Emilie states early on that she used creativity to combat the effects of her mental illness since childhood, so it makes sense that she'd continue to use a similar coping mechanism in an isolated and restrictive environment. As such, real world worries and fears take shape into a macabre horror, hopes and wishes are cruelly dashed, and the idea of being saved by the medical community is turned entirely on its head. Both narratives are a life or death struggle, and to that end, they mostly compliment themselves well.
At the same time, THE ASYLUM FOR WAYWARD VICTORIAN GIRLS is held back by its use of style over substance. Where the Emilie's story starts off strong, and each page is consistently gorgeous, her account tapers off to almost nothing as the Asylum takes over and she struggles to find something new to add to her dairies. For example, at one point she completely abandons both narratives to ramble about a synesthesia diagnosis that had never been mentioned before, and only serves as an excuse to breaks up the typeface of Emily's letters with Emilie's handwriting. Meanwhile, the Asylum's story line swings from utterly ridiculous to dark for darkness' sake with little pause in between, and the story itself is populated by undeveloped heroines and cartoonish villains. Torture, evidently, has been mistaken for character development.
With luck, the soon-to-be-released third edition will fix some of the book's problems. THE ASYLUM FOR WAYWARD VICTORIAN GIRLS is not an easy read, but its openness and honesty about manic depression still makes the experience rewarding despite its flaws. Recommended to anyone who enjoys deeply philosophical and emotional literature.