Sunday, August 25, 2013

A White Room by Stephanie Carroll

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 21, 2013

At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family. John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind. Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled. A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.

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From time to time I start reading a book without so much as glancing at the description. Call me crazy, but there is something fun about flying blind and diving in with absolutely no idea what direction a story might take. Such was the case with Stephanie Carroll's A White Room and for once, my adventurous spirit was not disappointed. 

Carroll creates a deliciously creepy atmosphere within these pages and I love the parallel between the figurative and literal captivity this character suffers while confined to her new home. Like Shirley Jackson, Carroll relies on terror rather than horror to tap into the emotions of her readers, creating a unique and additively page-turning brand of fear. 

The transition to the second portion of the story wasn't as clear as I might have liked, but I can't deny I found the material Carroll covered in the later chapters as compelling and intriguing as that of first. The key difference being that where the early sections of the novel showcased Carroll's gift for storytelling, the latter brilliantly demonstrated her ability to tackle delicate subject matter through fiction. 

Though I greatly enjoyed the book, there was one aspect I found insensitive and rather disappointing. Carroll's story touches on not one, but two controversial issues: abortion and assisted suicide. Personally I don't care and feel the author's manipulation of this touchy material was, but I was upset to discover neither topic was mentioned in the jacket description. It is one thing for a reader to ignore the cover blurb as I did, but is quite another for an advertisement to blindside readers by completely omitting the appearance of subject matter some find uncomfortable and/or offensive. 

I pride myself penning honest commentary and while the above paragraph is critical, I want to reiterate how much I enjoyed this story. Carroll is a wonderful storyteller and a truly gifted writer. But for my disappointment at the lack of discretion afforded her readers, I found A White Room a highly satisfying and thought-provoking read.

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I thought of the woman in the white room—she chose to sacrifice her freedom for the people who relied on her to survive, but how long could she possibly survive without freedom? How long could she last before choosing the alternative?”
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