The House of Velvet and Glass is a slow starter, which I don’t usually complain about, because if I’m enjoying a book enough, it can move as slowly as it wants. Nevertheless, considering how much I enjoyed Howe’s first book, I was surprised at how impatient I became with this one.
The novel begins with Helen and Eulah Allston, two entirely trivial women, mother and daughter, journeying back from a European husband-hunting expedition–on the Titanic. Although we’re told which ship they are on only at the very end of the first chapter, as if it were an ironic or surprising fact, the ship’s identity was very clear from early in the chapter.
Three years later, Sybil Allston is comforting her grief and anger at the death of her mother and sister on the Titanic by visiting a psychic. She is wholly convinced that she is receiving messages from the afterlife. On one of her visits, the psychic gives her a piece of crystal called a scrying stone.
Sybil’s father Lan Allston is a wealthy man who made his money through shipping, but he seems to spend all his time in his dark back parlor. Her brother Lanny looks as if he may be entering the life of a ne’er-do-well gambler and womanizer.
Not everything is as it seems, but I became extremely impatient waiting for the novel to go somewhere while we occasionally skipped backward in time to Lan as a young man in Shanghai or to Helen and Eulah on the Titanic.
Eventually, the novel becomes about a woman discovering her own powers, and the second half of the novel is much better than the first. But I did rebel against one thing. I particularly dislike it when characters in historical novels behave like modern people. I felt it would be extremely unlikely that Sybil would urge her father to bring home a woman they both think is a prostitute (and by their lights, is one) just because she has her brother’s blood on her dress. And I certainly don’t believe that her father would encourage Sybil to get to know her, although there turns out to be a reason for that. Completely unbelievable is the scene where Sybil takes her to her club or the scene where she goes, however, unwittingly, with her to an opium den.
So, a very mixed reaction to this novel. Ultimately, it became interesting, although the much-vaunted twists at the end were largely foreseeable.