Thursday, March 13, 2014

The House of Velvet and Fog - Katherine Howe

Who doesn't have a morbid interest in the Titanic and all the drama surrounding its construction and fated maiden voyage? If you can honestly say that you are disinterested, I will tell you that I'm skeptical of your insistence. That being said, I will say that Katherine Howe's second novel didn't quite measure up to her first, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Perhaps that's because the other historic event that grabs me by the throat and whips me to attention is the era and mania of the Salem Witch trials. I mean, really, could a novelist choose any two more spectacular events around which to build novels? Well, yeah ... there's the Holocaust and the birth of the Christian church, the Russian Revolution and  the Reign of Terror, and, and, and ... but, you have to admit, Katherine latched onto a couple of doozies when she penned her first novels. To boot, I'm a Yankee and lived for years within spitting distance of Salem/Danvers, where all the Salem witch drama unfolded. But that's a different story ...

So, okay. The good thing about both novels is that they are based in geographic area that I know and love. The House of Velvet and Fog takes place in Boston and is told in flashback fashion. Fast track plot without spoilers ... matriarch and favored daughter of rich Brahmin family goes down on the the Titanic. Elder daughter and wayward younger brother are left with father in the dark, brooding Beacon Hill residence to pick up the pieces and proceed in Boston society. But wait! Matriarch mother was deep into Spiritualism and elder daughter picks up the interest and tries to connect and settle her grief by 'seeing' those last moments on the ship ... and she succeeds... to a certain degree. Yes, there's a ship, and yes, there's fog and opulence, but why can't she see her mother and sister? What's going on here? Enter an ex-suitor, enter a tawdry but lovable actress, enter connections to Harvard and MIT social scientists interested in psychological research, enter WWI, enter flashbacks to father's past in the shipping trade to Asia and you have the ingredients for a layered story of a family's hidden secret. Oh yeah, and enter the widespread use of opiates in medicine before all the negatives were known.

Yup, it's a page-turner, but it's still not as good as her debut novel. Maybe that's because I still am more fascinated by the era of the Salem Witch Trials. Oh well,  it was STILL a good read.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting...and with family connections to both events (the same branch), I am interested in both events. Probably moreso the historical aspects over a novel. Gotta admire an author who tackles either, but especially so in her first two books. Your list might provide a clue where she may head next.