by Marschel Paul
A captivating historical novel about two independent-minded sisters in Victorian era America
Set in New York state in the late 1850s, two sisters are forced into becoming hoax mediums by their reprobate father in the wake of their mother's death. Following a short apprenticeship with a renowned Spiritualist and her clairvoyant assistant, 17-year-old Izzie and 13-year-old Clara Benton set up shop with Papa in a rigged séance parlor dubbed The Spirit Room.
The intelligent, self-educated Izzie shows genuine psychic talent but fears the spirit-world voices she hears are like her mother's, which she believes drove her mother to madness and early death. Vowing to return if Clara or her siblings need her protection, Izzie flees the family Spiritualism enterprise to go to Rochester with a new husband, a doctor specializing in "water-cure"--a trendy health spa therapy that the doctor soon begins to practice on his new wife. Clara, meanwhile, finds the Spirit Room gradually transformed, under her father's will, into a center for something much more malicious than hoax séances.
Becoming separated both physically and emotionally by complex turns in their paths, the young sisters, as the story unfolds, are becoming women. But will they be able to come out whole without each other?
In her noteworthy debut novel, Marschel Paul peppers her narrative with cultural and political references, from Madame Bovary to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that effectively serve as touchstones for the story's themes of women's independence and the power of female relationships--whether they be sisters, mentors, allies, or friends.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
I received this book for free in a Goodreads 'First Reads' giveaway. While reviews are not required when you win, they are recommended, and really it's just a common courtesy so I have no problem doing one. I was thrilled to find that my copy is signed by the author!
I have mixed feelings about this book. While I did love the story, there were some storytelling problems that I couldn't seem to let go of in my mind. Also, I understand why the description doesn't specifically mention what goes on in this story, but what is left unmentioned is really the bulk of the book, much more than the seance hoaxes that description implies it is about. I think this could be a disturbing shock to some readers. I certainly didn't see it coming and when it began, I was like 'Whaaaaat? What kind of book is this??' Having said that though, what happens is so sad that your heart just breaks as you watch events unfold.
You've already been warned, so here come the spoilers . . .
This book is really the story of thirteen year old Clara. While the narrative does jump back and forth between the points of view of Clara and her older sister Izzie, it really is Clara's story in the end. And what a disturbing and sad story it is. Mr. Benton, the girls' father, is an abusive, alcoholic, deadbeat. He can't keep a job and is always looking to make easy money in shady ways. Izzie is the oldest daugher, and at 17 years old she is smart and stubborn and will stand up to their father where her siblings won't. Clara and her twin brother Billy are thirteen years old, and then there is little sister Euphora, who is ten or eleven. Mr. Benton's physical abuse is directed at Billy, his only son, but his mental abuse carries over to all of the girls.
It is Papa who comes up with the idea for Clara and Izzie to become 'mediums' and begin holding fake spirit circles (seances). Clara has fun with it because she wants to be an actress anyway, but Izzie hates it. She's actually afraid of such things because her mother was convinced she heard voices of spirits and it drove her to her death. Izzie does not want to end up that way. When she has a chance to get married and move away from the whole depressing situation at home, she takes it. She promises to come back for her siblings if they ever call out for her and let her know they need help, but she *knows* she's leaving them in a bad situation.
I found I didn't really like Izzie in this book. She's too inconsistent, which is one of my problems with the storytelling. As the story goes on, I was never clear on if the relationship between her and her husband Mac was sincere or something shady. One moment they were tender and loving with each other, the next moment she's silently fighting against him in her thoughts, seemingly thinking he's an evil quack. One moment Mac is kind and attentive, the next it's strongly implied he's just using her and is possibly cheating on her all over the place. When she later wants to go visit her family he keeps her from going, saying he needs her there. It's never quite clear if he really feels he needs her there or if he's purposely keeping her away. And that brings me to another of the storytelling problems. What was the deal Papa and Mac made that cleared the way for Mac and Izzie to get married? Was Papa telling him to keep Izzie away so she wouldn't interfere? It had been mentioned early on that Mac offered to send money back to the family to help in place of what they were losing by Izzie moving away. Nothing ever came from that. It was hinted that Mac needed more financial supporters to open his new clinic. For a while I'd thought he'd turned the deal around and was blackmailing Papa, demanding money from him in exchange for his silence about the spirit circles being a hoax. Nothing ever came of any of it though, and I still don't know what the deal was.
After Izzie left, word got out anyway that Clara was a hoax and the seance business quickly died. Papa's need for easy money, and his brainwashing ways, begin Clara on a path into prostitution and THAT is what the bulk of the book is about. It does still hop back and forth between Izzie and her weird new life with a 'water-cure' obsessed husband, and Clara and the ongoing dramas at home, but it all comes back to the decisions Clara is forced to make, situations she's been forced into. Billy is eventually forced to flee. With the loss of the small income that he was bringing in, Papa now has ideas of bringing little Euphora into his sick money making scheme. And this is where Clara puts her foot down. She's become resigned to what she does (she's 13!!), but she will not let Papa brainwash her little sister the way he did with her.
With some outside help, Clara and Euphora flee and begin new lives elsewhere. When Izzie had left, she'd promised to come and get her siblings if any trouble arose. But Clara never mentioned what her father was getting her into because she was ashamed and embarrassed. Letters grew fewer, and even though Izzie often suspected things might need checking into she always let her husband keep her from going. So when she finally does stand up to him and go back home, it's too late. The girls are gone. She follows some tips that lead her to New York City and spends months searching for them but eventually goes back home to her husband. She finally receives word from Clara sometime later and rushes back to NYC, but still has no idea that Clara is a prostitute or what she's been through. The most heartbreaking part of the whole dang story is at one point in their reunion, after Izzie knows everything, when Clara is hitting her and crying "Where were you??" and pretty much blaming it all on her. In many ways, it's true.
It's also soooo sad that even once Clara has options, she finds it easiest to fall back on the life she's been groomed for. It's kind of a guilty slap in the face to Izzie that Clara's 'parlor house sisters' and madam stood up for her and protected her from her father, and that she wants to stay with them.
At 587 pages, you have plenty of time to get to know Clara. Like I said, Izzie's story is a little too inconsistent and unclear to really form any bond with her. If I were to strip away those weak points I would say I loved this book. I did not like the ending though. There were just too many unanswered questions. I mean, it's gnawing at me to the point I might try contacting the author just for clarification. The whole emphasis on the 'water-cure' institute didn't serve much purpose but to show some of the odd things people believed in at the time. There were any number of ways Mac could have kept Izzie away from her family. Even the voices and seances didn't serve much purpose beyond a gateway into Papa's money making schemes. What was the point of Izzie hearing "There's Hannah?" I thought for sure Hannah (Clara's friend) would end up dead somehow and that's why Izzie was hearing spirits talk about her. But nope. And what was the deal with Clara being so thin and pale and frail at the end? Was it implying she'd gotten some STD because of her line of employment, and she was dying? I almost wish there was going to be a sequel book, but if Clara were to die, I don't think I'd really care much about Izzie's story after that.
Hmmm, yes, I think I'll try contacting the author.