the house of velvet and glass

I wasn’t far into Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass before it began to feel familiar.  The personal yet third-person narration, the shifting between perspectives and periods, the hint of the supernatural – all of these characteristics made Howe’s novel reminiscent of one of the first books I ever reviewed for bookhopping, Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden.

In The House of Velvet and Glass, we open with a scene aboard the Titanic of a girl and her mother basking in the luxury of the ocean liner.  Though the scene is brief, it doesn’t take us long to find out these particular members of the Allston family do not survive the awaiting tragedy, and our story shifts to the perspective of Sybil, the older sister whose prospects weren’t worth the expense of a grand tour of Europe.  Sybil is now the reluctant woman of the house, doing her best to maintain the home graces for her retired sea captain of a father and her wayward brother.  But she can’t help but continue to try to seek out a connection with her lost mother and sister.

Like Morton’s Forgotten Garden, Howe’s story is built slowly, and it was easy in the early parts of the book to wander away for a time.  The actions of the differing periods seemed unconnected beyond the relationship of the characters themselves.  But as the plot builds, the pace quickens, and the connections begin to become clearer.  Also like Morton’s, Howe’s novel becomes far more compelling in its second half as all of the pieces come together; it’s suddenly easy to become immersed in 1915 Boston and to suspend disbelief of Sybil’s burgeoning abilities.

Besides the plot development, Howe’s greatest strength is in setting the scenes – the ship, the great houses, the back alleys, the college campus – all become entirely real in her hands.  The characters, on the other hand, lack a certain extent of depth, and exposition at times takes the place of characterization; for example, we’re told more than shown that Sybil and her father share a close connection.   Back stories, too, feel underdeveloped, particularly in regards to a potential romantic interest of Sybil’s.

But overall, The House of Velvet and Glass makes for a great escapist read; I think fans of The Forgotten Garden in particular will slip comfortably into the turn of the century world Howe creates.

*This book was provided to me for review at no cost by the publisher.

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~ by Molly on July 5, 2012.

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