Sibyl Allston is a late twenty-something Boston socialite in 1915. She is still grieving the loss of her mother and sister, both of whom perished on Titanic's maiden voyage three years earlier. Sibyl runs her father's household in a wealthy Back Bay neighborhood, and spends time with a psychic medium named Madame Dee in hopes of contacting her dead family. She has very few invitations, as society has given up on her ever finding a husband at her "advanced" age. When her brother is expelled from Harvard under mysterious circumstances and befriends a quirky, artistic flapper, things start to unravel in the Allston household.
The flapper's name is Dovie Whistler, and she and Sibyl become fast friends. Dovie reminds Sibyl of her younger sister Eulah because she is so daring and outspoken. Dovie introduces Sibyl to a seedy side of Boston that Sibyl would have never discovered on her own. One of Sibyl's former beaux, Benton Darby, returns from Italy a widower and takes a psychology professorship in Harvard's new Social Ethics department. Darby wants to help Sibyl's brother Harley get reinstated at Harvard, and Sibyl needs Darby's help in solving a mystery. Darby and Sibyl realize they still have deep feelings for one another, and the skeptical Darby learns that some mysteries cannot be explained through science.
Whenever Sibyl visits campus, the new Widener Memorial Library looms over the quad. It's a constant reminder of the Titanic tragedy as Harry Widener, a prolific bibliophile, was on board and did not survive. His mother-- who did survive-- donated almost four million dollars for the library's construction.
Most of the story occurs during April and May of 1915, and the sinking of the Lusitania happened on May 7, 1915. Because the main story is bookended by these two tragedies, The House of Velvet and Glass is melancholy at best. This was such a pivotal time in American history with industrialization, spiritualism, and the Progressive era changing the country's psyche. Howe's attention to historical detail is remarkable.
This book's plot is practically perfect. It is interrupted with "Interludes" from the past: glimpses into Mr. Allston's time as a young sailer in Shanghai and Helen and Beulah Allston's last evening on the Titanic. At first, I was annoyed with these interludes because I was enjoying the main story. But the technique is genius because Howe ties all the pieces of the mystery together like a present: The ending is shocking and will engage the reader into thinking long and hard about fate (or Providence). Another plus about the book is its characters. They are all interesting, and I truly became intrigued with the family secrets, romance, and unexplainable magic in The House of Velvet and Glass. I hope it will make your summer reading list!
I have an announcement! I will be hosting a link party every Friday along with my Literary Friday posts beginning on Friday, June 8th.
I would like for you to share your Summer Reading List for the first party. I am preparing my summer reading list this weekend so I can begin my summer reading after Memorial Day!
If you look on my sidebar, I have a new Literary Friday button. I hope you will grab it!