Book Reviews

The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman – Book Review

The book cover of The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Warning – possible spoilers! (Tiny ones, though, and I’ll try to avoid even those; I swear I’ll give my best not to ruin it for you… :-))

The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman – Book Details

TITLE – The Lost Girls of Willowbrook

AUTHOR – Ellen Marie Wiseman

GENREhistorical fiction, mystery, thriller, suspense



MY RATING – 4 of 5


A huge thank you to RB Media and NetGalley for providing me with an audio ARC of The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman in exchange for an honest review.

What It Is About

And where were all those poor innocent kids? What horrible things had they endured? Were they dead? Still suffering? Crying and terrified, wondering why their parents, the people who had promised to love and protect them forever, hadn’t saved them yet?

The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman is set in 1970s Staten Island. It follows a sixteen-year-old girl who mistakenly gets locked up in Willowbrook State School, the real-life institution that was later shot down for the horrendous conditions the patients were living in.

Sage Winters was told her twin sister Rosemary died from pneumonia when they were six. What little she remembers of her, it is clear that Rosemary had always been a little different.

But ten years later, Sage accidentally overhears her stepfather as he is saying that Rosemary didn’t really die. She was committed to Willowbrook State School, and was there until a few days ago, when she went missing.

All Sage knows about Willowbrook are rumors and terrifying local legends. Yet, she just has to find out what happened to Rosemary, so she secretly sets out for Willowbrook, determined to find her.

Themes and vibes:

    • 1970s Staten Island setting
    • a real-life institution that was later shuttered for its horrendous patient abuses
    • a girl searching for her twin sister that’s supposed to be dead
    • horror-ish atmosphere
    • murder mystery

The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman – My Review

She’d always hated those photos: the word MISSING all in caps knocking you between the eyes, the grainy photos taken on happier days before the kids were abducted, when everyone was still blissfully unaware that they’d be stolen from their families some day.

While I’m always in for a good suspense and even horror book, I’ll take ghosts and monsters over scary stories set in institutions any time.

Because institutions are creepy, that’s why.

Not the fun, exciting, I-feel-tingles-down-my-spine creepy. But downright terrifying. Real, blood-chilling, I’m-gonna-get-sick kind of creepy.

And The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman is not even technically a scary story. But it was still one of the more disturbing books I’ve read recently.

Can you imagine being mistakenly locked up in one of those places? No one hearing or caring what you’re saying? All your arguments being used against you as yet another proof you’re being delusional?

Now imagine the institution also resembles more a horror setting than any psychiatric ward ever should. So, not a nice, quiet, clean, retreat-type place. But the scariest, dirtiest ward where patients are being neglected at best and often openly molested. And where the possibility of someone doing a lobotomy on you because some student needs practice is not as far from the reality as it needs to be.

Mind you – Willowbrook was a real place!

And that is exactly the kind of place Sage ends up in. So, basically, I can barely tell you if that whole part of the story has been done well or not because I blocked it so hard, it all just slid past me.

I guess I didn’t read the blurb well because if I knew where most of the book was set, the chances of me picking it up would have been slim to none. But now I am glad I read it because there were many great things about this story.

The first half of the book, as I already said, kind of went in a blur to me. Sage finding out her twin sister is actually alive but committed to Willowbrook State School – that can’t be easy. I can’t even imagine how she must have felt at that moment. There’s nothing that can prepare you for it, and barely anything that could make it better.

And to make everything worse, Rosemary, the sister, is now missing, and Sage just has to find out what happened to her. Of course, that spirals out of control pretty quickly, leaving Sage in a position she couldn’t imagine even in worst nightmares. Completely unprepared for what’s coming. And with practically nothing she can do about it.

So, get ready (in the book, not in this review) for graphic, disturbing descriptions made so much worse by the fact you can’t say it’s just a story.

And here’s the thing – after a while, I had no freaking clue what was going on. There were several potential directions for the story to unravel and all seemed equally likely to me. Of course, given the stakes, there was a lot of pressure for urgent resolution, which created quite a bit of suspense.

So, there was the terrifying, hard-hitting setting. Unsettling, untrustworthy atmosphere. The continued mystery of what happened to Rosemary. And all that intertwined with local legends about missing children and potential horrors that happened to them.

But it was in the second half of the book, when the plot shifted into a murder mystery, that I finally completely clicked with the story and started to fully enjoy it. I don’t know why only then when the first half was also interesting and thrilling and excruciatingly spellbinding. But for some reason, we got a dead body, and suddenly I started to feel this book was going to be a much better fit for me.

It is what it is.

So yeah, we got a murder mystery, and I wasn’t expecting that. And it was quite a good mystery that, the way I saw it, had several potential solutions and all were quite promising.

Of course, one of the solutions turned out to be right so the revelation wasn’t a huge shock. Still, I always enjoy the guessing game. Plus, I got a couple of surprises, as some parts of the resolution I didn’t see coming at all.

I took out one star because some plot points were a bit too convenient. And there were a couple of details that could have been better. But most of the story worked really well.

So, who would be an ideal reader for this book? Well, though work of fiction, The Lost Girls of Willowbrook features some of the events that actually occurred from 1947 to 1987 at Willowbrook State School for the intellectually challenged on Staten Island. So if you are interested in that, definitely check out this book.

Also, if you enjoy mysteries that involve horror-ish urban legends and have recent history settings, this would be a great pick for you. However, I’d advise you to check the trigger warnings for this book before deciding if you are going to give it a chance.

Me? I’m definitely interested in checking out Wiseman’s other work, though I’ll make sure to mentally and emotionally prepare myself first 🙂

Seriously, though, The Lost Girls of Willowbrook is a great book and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s even a little bit interested in the topics it explores.

If you’ve already read it, let me know what you thought about it down in the comments.

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