“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.”
Thoughts: Katherine Howe’s second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass, inserts the reader into the upper-crust society of Boston in the 1910s. When her mother and younger sister perish on the Titanic, Sybil Allston is left to forge ahead with the requirements as set by society in her new role as head of the household and representative of the family among her set, while her brother must also live up to the expectations as set by his deceased mother and demanding father. Trapped into roles with which neither one is comfortable, each opts to assuage their grief in ways that become most disastrous. Occurring at the peak of Spiritualism and drawing on real historical figures and events as much as possible, The House of Velvet and Glass explores the depths to which a person will go in order to free themselves from the ties that bind.
The biggest strength of The House of Velvet and Glass is its writing. Ms. Howe’s lush descriptions and pinpoint characterizations create vividly clear, precise imagery and utterly realistic characters. The setting envelops the reader with its gorgeous prose, while the story unfolds with stunning clarity as the background becomes another character in its own right. It is as if the reader becomes a contemporary within the posh world of wealthy Boston in the late 1910s.
Plotwise, The House of Velvet and Glass is all over the place. It is an amalgamation of the tragic story of the sinking of the Titanic and the impact on the loved ones of the lost, a commentary on Spiritualism, a lesson on growing beyond one’s boundaries set by tradition, society, and family, and a warning about the dangers of becoming an addict. The reader is taken from Boston in 1914 to onboard the Titanic on the night of its sinking to Singapore in 1886, and the links between the three time periods is never truly apparent until the end. At many points throughout the novel, a reader will struggle to discern towards what point Ms. Howe is driving her audience.
In spite of all the issues with the plot, The House of Velvet and Glass draws in a reader and holds one’s interest. The plot itself might be confusing as it struggles to decide whether to be a character-driven novel or a plot-driven one, but Ms. Howe’s imageries more than make up for the plot’s inadequacies. Combined with its highly flawed characters and mystical elements, The House of Velvet and Glass is another excellent modern Gothic novel worth reading.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Hyperion Voice for my review copy!