As anyone with access to the media couldn’t help but know, April 15th was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. According to CBS Sunday Morning, over 100 books about the Titanic have been published—just in English—this year alone. Why is this disaster still so fresh in our minds? I don’t credit James Cameron. There were at least seven feature films about the Titanic before Kate and Leo stood precariously on the prow, not including the countless TV movies and films loosely based on the disaster. Downton Abbey fans will recall that the impetus of the series was the death of Grantham’s heir when the ship sank (Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton, helmed a Titanic mini-series on ABC last weekend). The unforgettable shadow of the Titanic makes yet another appearance in Katherine Howe’s sophomore novel THE HOUSE OF VELVET AND GLASS, but in a really unique way.
The novel begins with Helen Allston and her daughter who are returning to Boston via New York on the Titanic after a European coming-out tour. We meet them mid-scene, on their way to dinner—sadly, not at the captain’s table–and only for a few pages. Howe manages not only to give us an entire picture of their relationship and personalities, but also allows the reader to view the Titanic through the eyes of people of the day and feel the enormity of the ship and the amazing advances onboard, which can be lost to those of us in the next century when seen on film. In just this short acquaintance the sense of impending loss is striking.
But this is not a book about the Titanic. This is a book about Sibyl Allston, the daughter left behind in Back Bay who has to push aside the loss of her mother and sister in order to take care of her distant sea-dog father and disappointment of a younger brother, Harley. She finds rare solace from participating in séances of held by Mrs. Dee and attended by relatives of those lost in the disaster. Sybil’s rather precariously balanced life is turned upside-down with the return of a former beau, Harvard professor Benton Derby, and her own burgeoning psychic talents awakened by Mrs. Dee’s gift of a scrying glass.
THE HOUSE OF VELVET AND GLASS is perfect in its historic detail and mesmerizing in its subject. Make sure you read the special features at the end of the book as Howe explains much about her inspirations, and how the Titanic in popular culture influenced her work.
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