Book: The House of Velvet and Glass
Author: Katherine Howe
Genre: Historical Fiction/Spiritualism
Summary: Boston 1915. 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 a town house in Boston’s Back Bay. Trapped in a world over which she has no control, Sibyl seeks answers in the depths of a medium’s crystal ball. When her brother is suddenly kicked out of Harvard under mysterious circumstances and falls under the sway of a strange woman, Sibyl seeks out psychology professor Benton Derby, despite an unspoken tension from their shared past. As they work together to solve a harrowing mystery, they realize that there may be something more magical between them than a medium’s scrying glass. From the opium dens of Boston’s Chinatown to the 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 the reader breathless. -Hyperion, 2012
I found this book while organizing when I was still working at Barnes & Noble. After my shift was over, I went and purchased it, as the mystery aspect of the book caught my interest. I finished this within a week or so - it’s dense in parts, but not in a bad way. I’ll explain in a moment.
As always, spoilers will be kept to a minimum.
First off, I have to say that even though I never read much fiction involving the Titanic, I enjoyed the book for what it was. I learned a lot about the Titanic on my own and I think the knowledge I gained prevents me from investing too deeply in Titanic-based fiction. I know it’s a plot device or a setting for the author, but, it’s still one of the most tragic events in human history, and knowing that people are making money from using it as a plot device bothers me to a certain extent. I also count the Cameron movie in this evaluation of media that uses the ship as part of its story. Now, you might ask, If you don’t like the ship being used as part of the story, why did you buy the book? ‘
To be frank, it’s because the tragedy has already happened. Also, to Howe’s benefit, she doesn’t anchor her story to it because she needs to do so. It’s a moment in time that happened and it’s only sprinkled throughout the novel as a whole, so I can look past the usage of the ship this time.
As for the story itself, I did enjoy it as whole. Howe writes very well; her scenes and
settings are set up perfectly so that you can feel the velvet of the settees on your skin and smell the ocean off of the ship deck. It’s very vivid and this is clearly one of her strengths as a writer. The reader is passive observer, but a very present one nonetheless.
Howe also has a strong plot. Nothing is wasted or useless. Every character, every scene, every setting has a strict purpose so that the reader can be taken along the proper path of the plot. There was rarely a moment where I wondered why a certain scene was necessary to the story.
While the story focuses on Sibyl overall, there are chapters that focus on her brother, her mother, and her father as a young man. These sections are all labelled appropriately so that the reader doesn’t get lost. I particularly found the father’s chapters interesting because they help explain a very important plot point near the end of the novel.
I did wonder why Howe chose to include chapters that focused on her brother and mother. The chapters which focus on her brother are few, sure, but, other than providing a mysterious aspect to the story, as well as insight to the brother’s mind, I didn’t see the point - you could take them out and still have the same story without missing anything. I wouldn’t skip them, as they do help develop the brother’s character, but they weren’t as powerful as Sibyl’s chapters.
As for the mother’s chapters, they too are few so as to not be distracting, but I feel like Howe included them so the reader wouldn’t come to the wrong conclusions for the mother and sister. While the mother stays resolutely the same as how Sibyl portrays her in her mind, the sister is not as evil as one might assume. She has another side to her, which is what, I assume, Howe wanted the reader to know. It’s almost a kind of “what might have been” look had they both survived. It’s bittersweet and, dare I say, a little spine-tingling in the last chapter featuring them. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Even though the book summary includes a mention of romance, the plot line is very thin. There are some romantic moments, but not romantic scenes. If you’re big on historical romances within adventure and want them to be a big part of the story, you might want to skip this one. It has tension and the subtle hints are electric, but it’s not obvious. It’s one minor thread tying the whole story together.
As for the story itself, it was very good. Howe did her homework for the time period she chose and it’s obvious from the amount of detail in her scenes and wardrobes for her characters. The twists and turns were very good and the major twist was really fantastic. If you like to figure things out as Howe drops hints, you might be able to figure out the big twist before it’s revealed. I suspected the basic idea and it was correct, but the extent of it was really clever.
The only thing that isn’t explained is how or why Sibyl has her particular “gift”. It’s not a big deal - not knowing is part of the fun, in my opinion - and I don’t think it takes away from the story. In fact, I didn’t even realize it wasn’t explained until I finished the book!
Overall, The House of Velvet and Glass is a deep, well-written story with memorable characters, a fascinating plot, and great twists.
I give The House of Velvet and Glass an A.
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Thanks for reading!