Still reeling from the deaths of her mother and sister on the Titanic, Sibyl Allston is living a life of quiet desperation with her taciturn father and scandal-plagued brother in an elegant town house in Boston’s Back Bay. Trapped in a world over which she has no control, Sybil flees for solace to the parlor of a table-turning medium. But when her brother is suddenly kicked out of Harvard under mysterious circumstances and falls under the sway of a strange young woman, Sibyl turns for help to psychology professor Benton Jones, despite the unspoken tensions of their shared past. As Benton and Sibyl work together to solve a harrowing mystery, their long-simmering spark flares to life, and they realize that there may be something even more magical between them than a medium’s scrying glass. (goodreads.com)
I remember reading and liking THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE even though it was a bit heavy-handed. THE HOUSE OF VELVET AND GLASS follows in that same style, requiring a great deal of patience for those not used to reading these more character-driven books. You get an exceedingly rich and developed world and characters but the plot here is rather short. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the book does have a way of drawing you in.
Sybil is effectively a spinster who basically missed her opportunity to marry and has settled into her forced-upon role of taking care of her father and their house for the rest of her time on earth. She attends seances on the anniversary of her mother and sister’s death on the Titanic and ends up awaking in herself an ability to scry (except that comes with a rather dastardly opium habit).
The first half of the book is just character-building and developing Sybil most of all, but also her father (through flashbacks to his very young self), and her mother and sister (through flashbacks to their time on Titanic). Howe is rather adept at really fleshing out secondary characters with limited page time. Through their actions and minimal dialogue she’s able to paint pictures of people who are hardly present in the story but are fully tangible within it. With Benton and her brother come even more characters to get absorbed into and it’s really interesting just to watch them all interact with each other. Despite the fact that not a whole lot is going on Howe has made these characters so incredibly lifelike that they burst out of the page and perform for you while you read.
For the plot itself it really doesn’t pick up until around the halfway to two-thirds mark where Sybil has a revelation about the seance and her scrying really comes into play. Once those moments hit I felt propelled to the end of the book, as if reading were no chore at all. I do admit it was a little bit of a slog for me to get to that point because I’m normally not one for character-driven books so to watch a plot that has a little bit of drama but largely doesn’t move for a large portion of the book is hard for me to get through. But I was patient and the ending, really, was worth it.
The ending really was spectacular, most especially the flashback with Sybil’s mother and sister. You’re not left with them, as you would expect of a story involving people on Titanic, in their last actual moments of life aboard a foundering ship. You’re left with their self-proclaimed happiest moment of their lives and it’s so uplifting, despite what you know happens off the page. But you already know what happens to them from the very beginning. To know that they were happy, in the last few happy moments of the ship, provides an uplighting closure that I don’t think is all that common of a Titanic story.
Overall I really liked the book. It’s not my usual cup of tea but the payoff is worth the wait in reading through it. You get richly developed characters that are as human as humanly possible, a turn of the century Boston, Shanghai (well, latter 19th century), and Titanic that pop off the page in exquisite detail, and a story that, while taking a while to build, culminates in the best possible way for this story to end. It makes me eager to read more of Howe’s work.