15 March 2012

The House of Velvet and Glass; Katherine Howe

The House of Velvet and GlassThe House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great World-era Boston... seances... scrying... love... and the Titanic - what's not to love? Set mostly in Boston's Back Bay, this story of the Allston family takes us through 1915 through 1917 with a few detours to the night the Titanic sank and an evening in Shanghai in 1868. The Titanic sank with Helen (Mrs. Allston) and Eulah, the second, vivacious daughter, and the Widenars, including their son, Harry (in whose honor the Harvard Widenar Library was established).

Three years later, Sybil, the elder daughter attends seances, looking for a connection to her mother and sister, hoping to alleviate her guilt of surviving. Brother Harley (aka Harlan Allston III) has been asked to leave Harvard because of an illicit relationship with a woman; he also has amassed huge gambling debts and is hospitalized after being beaten badly (exactly what happened is only revealed later). There's also Benton Derby, Sybil's former beau and a professor of social ethics at Harvard, who doesn't believe in spiritualism and tries to convince Sybil to give up her addiction to opium and the visions she's experiencing.

The depiction of Boston in that era is so detailed that it is sometimes it's a surprise to realize you're not actually in that world. Sybil's experiences with opium, laudanum and morphine are actually enticing, with the dangers mentioned but not strongly enough that readers will remember. It's also interesting to see the paraphernalia of spiritualists being stripped away while leaving open the question of whether some visions are real (and inexplicable).

When historical fiction introduces real people (and the Widenars and Dr. Friend are real) usually it's a little jarring, but here it's blended in well and doesn't feel forced.

ARC provided by publisher.

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