This is a strange book. In a good way.
The writing is evocative, the setting and time period rich and convincing. The tone and style are nearly perfect for the era and subject matter.
I found it very engaging...even though I usually disconnect somewhat when I don't admire any of the characters. While I sympathized with Rosalie, and found myself wanting to like her, I couldn't quite get over some of what she allowed/condoned. I didn't like John Watson much at all, but he was a undeniably fascinating character. This complexity kept me interested, kept me thinking about it even after I finished.
I do rather wish I had read the author's notes at the back first, because I read the novel assuming that it was based on known facts about Rosalie with details filled in by the author, when it turns out most of Rosalie's story was pure invention. That always confuses my sense of truth and makes me doubt the parts that really were based on fact. However, this is just my own personal problem with historical fiction. Besides, we all know how accurate our “true” histories are.
What follows is not exactly a criticism of the book. It's a criticism of Watson, Rosalie, and all their associates. Okay, here goes: those real-life experiments with infants were unbelievable. Bad enough was the sheer cruelty of it: practically torturing unwilling and defenseless subjects in the quest to permanently leave them negatively conditioned. Um...unethical?
But even if you accept that Watson was an unethical man, or a man with twisted Machiavellian ethics, I had a hard time believing his scientific method (or lack thereof). He was supposedly a great scientist, as was Rosalie, but their experiment structure was so flawed that I—not a scientist—saw the giant problems. For example, with the Albert B experiments: One subject? Really? Tests that change more than one variable at a time? And then you modify the experiment midstream to try to get the result you want? So unscientific. And it's sickly irresponsible to base entire child-rearing theories on insanely small sample sizes of relatively short duration that—even if they were more scientific and duplicatable—wouldn't prove as much as you claim they prove. So why did no one really question his methods at the time?
I think the novel could have more fully explored these issues, really examining the psychology of seeing what you want to see instead of what really IS, of letting yourself get swept away in bad science for some imagined greater good or because of the authority-in-a-white-coat phenomenon or because you're in love or in lust. And what about dealing with the guilt when you finally understand what you did? All of this is addressed to a degree in the book, some of it quite elegantly, but I would have liked to have seen less of the romance in favor of a deeper treatment of these and other more interesting topics.
It's a compelling book. I would certainly read more by Andromeda Romano-Lax.