Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

It takes 300 pages for something to happen in this book and where it ends up is so far from where you think it's going, that I'm not sure the trip is worth it. I'm also not sure the person who wrote the synopsis of the book actually read it.

I picked up this book because it is set in Boston, my favorite town, and it's a period piece, taking place on the eve of U.S. involvement in WWI. It features the Allston Family who is recovering from the tragedy of losing two of its members on the Titanic. The synopsis of the book cites "mysterious circumstances" and a "harrowing mystery" to be solved as the family copes with their loss, or at least that's what I thought and what intrigued me about the book. Taking the position of the survivors who were left ashore while family members drowned on the Titanic is a unique perspective that I wanted to read about, but instead I was given Harlan, a rule-breaking college kid with a gambling problem and Sybil, a young woman who discovers through the use of opium that she has a very special, very depressing gift. Both characters are affected by the loss of their family members (a sister and their mom,) but what takes main stage is coping with these other issues. Must be what the synopsis meant by "mystery."

Even thinking about the flow of the book now, I'm confused. The book jumps between the present (1915,) the day the Titanic sank, and 1868 where you learn more about the father in the family. Initially, it made sense to pair the present in the book with scenes from the Titanic, but then things shifted and you see a connection between the present and the father's flashback. There's only a tiny point where the three story lines connect in any way and it was anticlimactic. It would have been a more compelling story without the flashes back to the Titanic, if you ask me. The story would have felt more cohesive to shift the focus on the "gift" Sybil discovers and how it affects her life and the lives of her family. The conclusions she reaches about destiny and fate as a result of coping with her "gift" are the most interesting piece of the entire story, but they get tangled up with the reader's incorrect expectations that this is a book about the aftermath of the Titanic.

Howe likes to infuse her stories with a lot of history and a little bit of the fantastical and I think she got it right with her previous book, but this one definitely fell short.