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Friday, April 12, 2013

The House of Velvet & Glass by Katherine Howe

Title: The House of Velvet & Glass
Author: Katherine Howe
Publisher: Voice
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 418
How I Read It: Hard cover purchased by me.
My Rating: 3.5 Crowns

Synopsis: Katherine Howe, author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, returns with an entrancing historical novel set in Boston in 1915, where a young woman stands on the cusp of a new century, torn between loss and love, driven to seek answers in the depths of a crystal ball.
Still reeling from the deaths of her mother and sister on the Titanic, Sibyl Allston is living a life of quiet desperation with her taciturn father and scandal-plagued brother in an elegant town house in Boston’s Back Bay.  Trapped in a world over which she has no control, Sibyl flees for solace to the parlor of a table-turning medium.

But when her brother is suddenly kicked out of Harvard under mysterious circumstances and falls under the sway of a strange young woman, Sibyl turns for help to psychology professor Benton Derby, despite the unspoken tensions of their shared past.  As Benton and Sibyl work together to solve a harrowing mystery, their long simmering spark flares to life, and they realize that there may be something even more magical between them than a medium’s scrying glass.

From the opium dens of Boston’s Chinatown to the opulent salons of high society, from the back alleys of colonial Shanghai to the decks of the Titanic, The House of Velvet and Glass weaves together meticulous period detail, intoxicating romance, and a final shocking twist that will leave readers breathless.

*Synopsis taken from the book jacket

My Review: In her second novel, Katherine Howe brings us back to Boston with a story that has a similar structure to that of her debut.  Our main characters are in the Bostonian upper class just after the turn of the century, and on the cusp of the United States entering WWI, with segments of the story taking place a couple of decades earlier in Shanghai, as well as the last day aboard the Titanic.  The story starts with Helen and Eulah enjoying a day on the ill-fated ship, oblivious to what awaits them, and then cuts to the present day of the novel: Sibyl at a séance on the anniversary of the sinking of the ship that took her mother and sister with it.

While the story does have a bit of a fantastical element to it, it’s mostly a look at grief, addiction, and the trappings of life during this time period.  In searching for more answers about what has happened to her mother and sister, Sibyl quite accidentally discovers that she can see visions in a mystical ball of glass given to her by a medium, known as a scrying glass.  One catch: she has to be high on opium to see these visions.

As the reader, I was watching this with a lot of trepidation, knowing that opium is very addictive and also realizing that the troubles associated with the drug weren’t widely known at the time.  Although Sibyl doesn’t start using opium with the intention of making herself feel better, it was interesting to me to watch her become addicted to her quest for more knowledge.  It really seemed like the need to know was the real problem for Sibyl, rather than the opium itself, but the two go hand in hand in this particular case.  Grief can take on all kinds of manifestations, so I found this particularly difficult to read given that we know what Sibyl is really running from, and knowing that there’s no real escape from your feelings.  For quite a bit of time, we’re all wondering if what Sibyl sees is real, or simply an opium dream.  Eventually, Sibyl learns the truth of what she is seeing, and it opens up a whole new world of family history for her. 

The story does start out a bit slowly, building up the lives of all of our characters before getting into the meat of the novel.  Because this is a tale of grief, I think it was important to follow the Allston family down their paths and learn how they were each coping with their tragedy.  This added connection to the characters made them much more interesting and sympathetic to me as the story went on.  And although this novel is a work of fiction, the presence of actual historical characters and events made it more interesting and added realism to the story.  When I think about the fact that so many people believed in séances and that kind of mysticism at the time the novel was set, the whole thing seems like a very plausible story for how these people might have dealt with the aftermath of losing their family members in such a tragedy.

While this novel didn’t touch me quite as much as the authors first book, I did enjoy it and I thought it was a pretty good historical fiction piece.  It did what all good novels do – left me wanting more and hoping I get to see these characters again in the future.  I think people who enjoy historical fiction with a little bit of fantasy or magic thrown in will enjoy this one.

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