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Book Watch
by Fran Haraway

The House of Velvet and Glass
by Katherine Howe

This novel’s opening scene introduces us to several passengers enjoying an elegant supper on a luxurious ocean liner where we observe particularly the actions of the Allston ladies. Helen Allston has her eye on the prize - the prize being the successful engagement of her daughter, Eulah, whom she has just taken on the grand tour to “meet all the fashionable people of Europe.” The food is delicious, the surroundings are opulent and the company is sophisticated. But all that will change. They are, after all, traveling through the North Atlantic Ocean in mid-April, 1912. Even if the reader does not pick up on the description of the grand staircase or the reference to the coarse Mrs. Brown, the menu heading leaves no doubt: RMS Titanic.

The story focuses on the remaining members of the Allston family who must deal with the sudden shock of their loss. The eldest child, the appropriately named Sibyl, turns to séances (particularly one aimed at family members who can’t deal with the Titanic aftermath) and a scrying ball to help her understand what happened to her mother and sister. In the process of searching for the past, she discovers the future.

Harley, the only son, turns to rebellion and the rejection of responsibility to deal with the fact that he was not there to help his women into a lifeboat. His story offers the argument about which is better – a long, undistinguished life or a short, brave one - while the father, Harlan Allston, keeps his own council and hides his own grief. As the plot evolves, we find he carries a heavy emotional burden.

The beginnings of WWI, the pervasive use of laudanum (aka “tincture of opium”) as a medicine and the recreational use of smoking opium are also important to the plots as are the ongoing argument about free will versus fate and character and choice versus predestination.

Sibyl has identified herself as the spinster, the stay-at-home-caregiver, but, as current events pull her out of that particular cocoon, she discovers that she can neither reshape what was nor control what will be. It’s a lesson her father learned long before in Shanghai from a friend who said, “Too much attention to the past and the future takes the now away. And once it’s gone you never get it back.”

To learn more about this and other books, visit the Boulder City Library at 701 Adams Boulevard, 293-1281,

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