Sibyl Allston spends her days mourning the loss of her younger sister and mother, whose lives ended tragically when the Titanic sank in April 1912. The two were returning home from a grand European tour, and their loss devastates the family. As the oldest daughter and most responsible of the Allston children, Sibyl takes over as the woman of the house but doesn’t have the backbone to garner any respect --- not from the house staff or from family acquaintances. Accepting of the fact that she will most likely remain single, she does what she can to make her life, and her father’s, as normal and comforting as she can, considering their loss.
"What Katherine Howe does very well is capture a moment in time. Boston 1915 is a rich setting, and she doesn’t let any of the details slip."
When Sibyl’s brother, Harley, is kicked out of Harvard under circumstances that he won’t discuss --- everyone assumes it has something to do with a young woman --- her already heartbreaking and complicated life gets one more added layer of sadness. Her father and brother can’t be in the same room together without fighting, and after a particularly stressful time, Harley leaves. Later, a young woman shows up at the house covered in blood with news that Harley has been severely injured. While waiting at the hospital for news on Harley, Benton Derby, Sibyl’s former love --- a man for whom she still has great feelings --- shows up wanting to help, throwing not only Sibyl but also the whole family into a tailspin.
Sibyl, a devotee of fortune telling, begins to find solace in the art, hoping that a medium used by her mother will help her find comfort in the memories of the past and answers about the future. What she doesn’t understand yet is her own gift in the art and the effect it will have on her life and family members.
What Katherine Howe does very well is capture a moment in time. Boston 1915 is a rich setting, and she doesn’t let any of the details slip. The book moves around in time thanks to the fortune-telling aspect, but the characters pull the story back, reminding you where the story is taking place. Sibyl is a particularly poignant character, looking for comfort and acceptance from her father but also from a deceased mother who lost hope in her and placed all her dreams of a good marriage match on her younger sister. Sibyl is a sad person, but so wrapped up in handling the necessities of her day that she hides most of her feelings, hoping others won’t see her hurting. Her need for comfort, acceptance and assurance land her in a dangerous place.
While I did enjoy certain aspects of the fortune telling in the novel --- it was a popular pastime at this point in history --- it did make parts of the book feel slightly disjointed. It’s a nice touch but also a bit heavy-handed, making the story feel like it’s coming and going at the same time.
THE HOUSE OF VELVET AND GLASS is Howe’s second book following THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE. She’s more than willing to immerse her readers in history. If you enjoy historical fiction, Howe is a writer to pay attention to.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on April 13, 2012