The Unlocked Path is a historical novel about a “New Woman” of the early twentieth century: educated, career-minded, independent. In 1897 Philadelphia, after experiencing her aunt’s suicide, Eliza Edwards vows to help and heal. In her social circle, a young woman’s chief goal was to debut in society, but Eliza isn’t interested in such a traditional role. Instead, she enters medical college when only five percent of doctors are female. With the support of a team of women and driven by a determination to conquer curriculum demands, battle sexism, and overcome doubts, Eliza charts her life’s trajectory.
Author Janis Robinson Daly was inspired to write her debut novel after conducting a genealogical search on her great-great-grandfather, William S. Peirce, who played an active role in founding the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Ancestry websites are great, aren’t they?
I was born in an age during which the world was my oyster. The main character in this novel, Eliza, didn’t have that luxury. Her moxie and ambition to follow her dreams impressed me. To be a woman of medicine during the early 1900s would have been challenging. For example, Eliza’s hospital supervisor said: “I will schedule separate female doctors or residents from the same shift. I’ve heard how too much time together can stimulate an alignment of womanly cycles. I won’t have an entire shift of practicing doctors and nurses incapacitated on the same days each month.” Yikes.
Daly did a fabulous job drawing her characters, particularly Eliza, who was surprisingly relatable—the sight of blood makes me weak in the knees. I liked her. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to succeed. Her word pictures made me feel like I was walking the streets of Philadelphia.
The first half of the book was especially interesting as I got to know the characters and became immersed in the era. Daly’s historical details are wonderful; it’s rare for me to learn so much while reading a novel. She did a stunning amount of research and included many real historical people in the story. I went down plenty of bunny trails, believe me.
The second half was tedious, though, and the overly descriptive prose impeded a great plot. Still, I see great promise in Janis Robinson Daly as a fresh voice in historical fiction. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions expressed are my own.