The House of Velvet and Glass
Katherine Howe
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Buy *The House of Velvet and Glass* by Katherine Howe online

The House of Velvet and Glass
Katherine Howe
432 pages
April 2012
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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There’s no loss greater than the sudden death of a family member, an event most painful when told from the perspective of Sibyl Allston. Sibyl's heart lurches with trepidation but is also tinted with a strange kind of excitement when she arrives at the home of local spiritualist Mrs. Dee. Sibyl stands in desperate need of contacting the spirits of her mother, Helen, and her sister, Eulah, since they perished that horrible night on the RMS Titanic.

Living with Lan, her stern, emotionally unavailable father, at Beacon Hill in Boston, Sibyl feels as though she is growing old. At twenty-seven, she has finally accepted that her life will most likely remain confined to the oversight of her father’s household. In the first black instant when they heard that Titanic was lost--and yearning to be released from the crushing, noxious weight of her mingled guilt and relief--Sybil has never quite been able to forgive herself for thinking that she was relived not to have been one of them.

Weather-beaten from his ocean-going years as a sailor in the 1860s, grieving Lan must pull himself together, cover his discomfort with formality, and find a way to carry the burdens of tradition. He need also attend to Sibyl and his son, Harlan, whose mounting gambling debts and suspension from Harvard have added yet another layer of drama to this collective sense of self-loathing. A boy so helpless in his privilege, Harlan’s “sour ball of resentment” has allowed him to wonder though worlds where he has no business.

From Lan’s vantage point, only his intoxicating blue macaw, Baiji, and his pocket chronometer--a relic of his years at sea--fill him with a mix of comfort and pride. The air tastes of salt, wet earth, and river bottom: Sibyl closes her eyes, her ears echoing with imaginary screams. She sees the frigid water swirling around her mother and sister’s feet, tying her up in knots and filling her with confusion and dread.

Flashing with moments of great feline grace, Howe’s heartbreaking Edwardian period piece intertwines history and secrets with portents from opium-laced dreams. Desperate, Sibyl finds herself at the Harvard Department of Social Ethics where she falls into the arms of dark-eyed Benton Derby, who promises to help her find a way to address her loss. While Harlan continues his penchant for reckless behavior, Lan, stands before Sybil and sees a younger version of himself. His stoic mask is one of many faces worn at great cost to keep his family free from the ghostly shadows of horror, regret, and a murder that forever stains his soul.

The thrumming engines of the brand-new RMS Titanic beat at the heart of this beautiful novel. Outward bound in the North Atlantic on that night of April 14th, we feel Helen’s irritating sense of urgency as she watches Eulah, her pride and joy, dance with the bookish and very marriageable Harry Widener, the music swelling in concert with Eulah’s growing pleasure. Under the hum of late-night conversation and the clinking of champagne glasses, Eulah and Helen are happier than they could ever have imagined.

Sybil’s scrying glass--a polished ball of pure crystal, its surface shining like a mirror--casts a dark, elegiac shroud over this tale, opening a fissure between our world and the next. The orb allows Sybil to find a peace of sorts that changes her view of her own life and of her family. Balancing science against the vagaries of spiritualism, Howe shows how the Allstons, emboldened by love and desire, must eventually come to terms with an age bruised by the promise of modernism and its ultimate betrayal.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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