Everyone has their own little obsessions and interests. For me, they include General Hospital, 1970s TV, vampires that do not sparkle, romantic comedies, anything hot pink, ghost stories, the Titanic, ESP, New York City, and boots, just to name a few. Katherine Howe has written a book with two of these elements – Titanic and ESP – which, at first glance, don’t seem to go together naturally. I don’t usually gravitate toward historical fiction, but the subject matter was too tantalizing to resist.
Three years ago, Sibyl Allston lost her mother Helen and younger sister Eulah when the Titanic went down. Now a young spinster who helps run her family’s Boston estate, Sibyl comforts herself through visits to Mrs. Dee’s parlor, where the séances convince Sibyl that her lost relatives are watching her from the great beyond. Mrs. Dee even gives Sibyl a looking glass in which Sibyl tries to get her own glimpse of her mother.
Sibyl’s life is complicated by the return of two men: her ne’er-do-well younger brother Harlan, who’s been kicked out of college, and widowed psychology professor Benton Jones, who broke Sibyl’s heart when he married another woman. When Harlan’s girlfriend Dovie takes Sibyl to a Chinatown opium den, Sibyl begins to see visions in Mrs. Dee’s looking glass. At first, Sibyl thinks she’s seeing the Titanic before it went down, and anxiously searches for her loved one’s faces. But then Sibyl realizes what she’s seeing isn’t the past, but the future. As Sibyl takes more opium to continue her look into the future, Benton tries to keep her from becoming addicted or completely lost to her visions.
This summary makes The House of Velvet & Glass seem a little convoluted, but the book holds together well and flows very nicely. The point-of-view moves among Sibyl’s doomed sister on the Titanic, Sibyl herself, Harlan, and Lan, the family patriarch. Lan’s point-of-view tells a story that takes place some 30 years prior, which eventually sheds light on Sibyl’s visions. Sibyl seems very much a creation of her time; a typical oldest child who fulfills her familial duties while repressing her own desires. She’s wholly sympathetic, even as her actions sometimes seem foolish.
Howe chooses not to depict the deaths of Helen and Eulah on the Titanic, and instead leaves us with the image of sweet, peppy Eulah and her indulgent mother after a moment of personal triumph. I can appreciate that such scenes might have been needlessly graphic, but I wanted to know why they died. Sibyl points out that only four upper-class women died when the ship went down, so why were Helen and Eulah victims?
More than 100 years later, Titanic remains a fascination for many people, not just me. Even though the story itself mostly takes place in 1915 and is fully grounded in that time period, Howe raises timeless questions through the quandary of Sibyl’s visions. If one can see the future, can she change it? What if that future belongs to someone else? Is the future set in stone? Or is a person’s ultimate fate sealed, with only the details subject to change?
The House of Velvet and Glass is an engrossing, engaging read not only for fans of Titanic and historical fiction, but for anyone who wants a story that stays with her long after the last page is read.
Thanks to Penguin UK for the book in exchange for an honest review.
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