A White Room by Stephanie Carroll
Author: Stephanie Carroll
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1900s / Southern Gothic / Marriage / Insanity / Nursing / Marriage / Secrets)
Publisher/Publication Date: Unhinged Books (6/12/2013)
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In 1901, a young woman with some nursing training finds herself in a cold marriage, trapped in an eerie house, living in a town full of secrets.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Gothic, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I love it. I'm partial to Sargent anyway, but the image resembles a description early on in the book, of a woman in a white dress, twisting around to look behind her. This is very evocative of it.
I'm reminded of...: Shirley Jackson, Jennifer McMahon
First line: My father died with the taste of blood on his lips.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like atmospheric novels reminiscent of Shirley Jackson and Jennifer McMahon.
Why did I get this book?: Was quite tempted by the premise!
Review: This creepy, atmospheric novel kept me on the edge of my seat (or up all night in bed) for days.
Opening in 1900, the novel follows Emeline, a young woman returned from nursing school without a husband. When her father dies suddenly, her family is plunged into unexpected poverty. With three young sisters and her mother to support, Emeline makes the rash decision to ask her father's friend if she can marry his son.
To her shock, the family agrees, and in a matter of weeks, Emeline is married and brought from St. Louis to the isolated town of Labellum, Missouri, where her husband will practice law. There, she learns how disastrous her impetuous decision was. Her husband bought a ghastly, monstrous house, full of furniture and decor that is outrageously grotesque and frightening. From her first step inside, the house frightens Emeline. Worse, perhaps, is her husband's continuing indifference to her, and Emeline swings between relief at ignoring him and deep hurt at his treatment of her.
This book, like the furniture, like Emeline's sanity perhaps, is snaky, hard to pin down. At first, I thought it was simply going to be a send up on Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper', but it's more than just a look at Victorian attitudes toward women and their mental health. There's an oppressive kind of mystery, right out of a Shirley Jackson story or a Stephen King novel, with a close knit small town fighting to keep their secrets. I was tense the whole time, even though this book isn't a thriller, but I couldn't stand not knowing what was happening, and if Emeline was sane or mad. Emeline's salvation, her freedom from the house, comes almost by accident, and shifts this novel from an homage to 'The Yellow Wallpaper' to a kind of historical mystery or thriller.
Carroll's writing style is the star of this book. Emeline is an appealing, sympathetic heroine who manages to be wry and clever without dissolving into modern snark.
I developed a talent for locating and consuming writing deemed unsuitable for a young lady, such as Dickens, Wuthering Heights, sensations like The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, and various science and medical texts., p50Her descriptions of this house -- and Emeline's mental health -- ratcheted up the creepy tension. Like every other room in the house, Emeline's creepy sitting room is stuffed overflowing with bric-a-brac and outrageous color schemes.
Thousands of white and pink doilies drowned every table and chair and the little pink sofa, too. It reminded me of an ocean of pink goo. I was certain if were to sit in it, I would suffocate in a warm flesh-colored swamp. (p34)And later:
The room pulsated with pink, as if it were a stomach preparing to digest. (p83)I also have to compliment the book's layout and design. Each chapter opens with gorgeous Art Nouveau flourishes, and the e-book formatting is readable and clean.
I'm very nearly in love with this book, now that I've finished my review! It hits all the right notes for me in hinting at so many genres I love without being a flat pastiche. Unique, surprising, and wildly fun.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The White Room to two (2) lucky readers: a paperback copy for US readers and an ebook copy for international readers! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 8/9. For another entry, check out my interview with Stephanie Carroll.