Title: The House of Velvet and Glass
Author: Katherine Howe
Pub. Date: April, 2012
Summary: 1915. Boston. Sybil Allston is a young woman poised on the cusp of a tumultuous new century. But she’s living a life of quiet desperation with her father and wastrel brother in an elegant town house in the city’s plushest neighborhood. Though her days are rich in creature comforts, she is still reeling from the loss of her mother and sister in the Titanic, which sank three years earlier – and now she feels trapped in her own life.
Sybil hunts for solace in her visits to a spiritualist medium, seeking to commune with her relatives in the afterworld. But Sybil’s staid days are shaken when her brother and his actress lady friend unexpectedly reappear in Boston under suspicious circumstances. Benton, a young Harvard psychologist, also makes a surprising reappearance from deep in Sybil’s past, and they soon find themselves working together to solve a harrowing mystery, as Sybil’s life suddenly opens to a world of possibilities. And just as her long-suppressed feelings for Benton start to deepen, Sybil begins to unravel a shocking truth about her family and her father’s past. But as she’s about to discover, time is running out.
Against this backdrop of Boston on the brink of change flash intimate moments of Sybil’s mother and sister on their final lavish evening on the Titanic, hours before the collision that would destroy the shop and claim their lives – lives revisited through the crystal ball of a medium.
Genre: Historical Fiction
It’s always unnerving to see how an author follows a wildly successful debut. Ms. Howe’s first novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was massively popular and I had mixed emotions going into her sophomore novel. On the one hand, YES ANOTHER BOOK!! However, on the other, there was that tiny wave of trepidation, that little voice wondering whether she could possibly top her first release.
Turns out, yes. Yes she most certainly can.
The House of Velvet and Glass takes place during 1915. World War I has yet to reach America, though coverage is on the front page of all the papers. Just three years earlier, Titanic – a legend even during her existence – sank on that fateful night in April, 1912.
Sybil Allston lost both her mother and her younger sister when the ocean liner sank. Being the oldest, Sybil was the first to make her debut, spending hours upon hours attending parties and mingling with the best of Boston’s society. She was the talk of town and everyone was certain it was only a matter of time before Benton Derby would propose. Unfortunately, he suddenly married a frail woman named Lydia, took off for Italy, and Sybil was destined for spinsterhood. Her mother, Helen, wasted no time in turning her attentions on Eulah, Sybil’s younger sister.
Eulah was everything Sybil wasn’t: outgoing, funny, flirty, headstrong. She fiercely defended her position on suffrage and insisted women be given the right to vote. She was a girl ahead of her time and Helen was determined to see her daughter married off to one of Boston’s finest. So determined in fact, that she had her husband, Captain Lan Allston, purchase two tickets for the famed Titanic, in order to take Eulah around Europe. (In the afterword, there’s a really interesting tidbit: in 1912, a first-class ticket for Titanic cost $4,350. Today, that same amount would be over $90,000!!)
Naturally, Sybil harbors anger and resentment at being cast aside. She’s barely in her mid-twenties, yet at that period in time, girls were expected to already be married and raising a family at her age. After hearing about the sinking, she feels a sick sense of relief that she wasn’t brought along, and the thought overwhelms her with guilt.
One year later, a spiritualist gathers a group of surviving relatives and holds a seance. Each year Sybil returns in an attempt to make contact with her mother and sister and winds up receiving a small glass ball. A scrying glass, the medium calls it. It is with this glass (along with a little help from opium) that Sybil begins having visions.
The House of Velvet and Glass is told in three parts: flashbacks aboard Titanic, flashbacks during Lan Allston’s time spent in China as a young sailor, and from Sybil’s perspective in 1915. While I adored the novel as a whole, it was those brief moments on Titanic that I especially loved. With each new scene I held my breath, anxious to find out if that was the moment the liner hit the iceberg.
The entire cast of characters were beautifully fleshed out. Harlan, Sybil’s younger brother; Lan; Dovie, Harlan’s girlfriend; Professor Derby. Even the minor character were wonderful and I felt a connection to every single one of them.
I was particularly pleased with the romance. Perfect. I was never a fan of instalove and the slow pace of the romance in this novel was a delight.
I could truly go on and on for days about this novel. Haunting and richly detailed, The House of Velvet and Glass is an absolute joy. Not a lot of action takes place, but there was never any need and at no point did I find its quiet pace to be lacking. Looking back, there was never a dull moment or any scene where I felt bored or wanted to set the book down. Quite the opposite, in fact. I didn’t want to set it down at all. It was all I could do to keep myself from calling in to work sick just so I could continue reading – and that’s really saying something.
The House of Velvet and Glass‘s release comes at a perfect time: this week will be the 100th anniversary of Titanic‘s sinking. This novel went above and beyond all of my expectations and I highly recommend it. ♥
An interesting note: it seems the e-book will include an essay by Howe, a Q&A, and the original article from the Boston Daily Globe of Titanic‘s sinking from April 15, 1912!
Of course, it was rather a hard lot, to be cherished. The beloved can so easily disappoint when the inevitable prove to be human.
Lannie felt himself to have come from an old place. Salem was a long-memoried town, its streets stalked by ghosts. As a boy his mother told him of witches who liked to fillet disobedient children, and even though he knew she was spinning fairy stories he nevertheless grew up with the weight of past generations on his shoulders. He carried the burden of tradition with a mixture of pride and disquiet, or even resentment. Every choice bore the implied judgment of these ancestors he never knew, whose memory must not be sullied, whose expectations for him must not be let down.
Her breathe escaped her mouth and nose in a cloud of warmth, and she grinned, imagining that it was her soul that she could see, moving in and out of her body, instead of her breath.