This book was provided to me by Unhinged Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
A White Room by Stephanie Carroll
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. (via Goodreads)
About two-thirds of the way through The White Room, an argument breaks out at a dinner table. It’s formal dinner table of mixed company, of upper-class Victorian/Edwardians. The argument is about abortions, including abortions with hangers. My patience with this book dissolved along with any semblance of its historical accuracy. If I had been reading a physical copy of this book, I probably would have thrown it against a wall. As is, I was reading on my computer monitor and settled for a face-palm, an eye roll, and a very loud groan of disbelief. (To be clear, I did finish this book, but with band-aid pulling rapidity.)
Stephanie Carroll touches on some interesting issues with her debut novel. Women’s health at the turn of the 20th century is a terrible mish-mash of near-science. Female hysteria was a catch-all diagnosis for many complaints including the male complaint of having an unruly wife. Reproductive health and pregnancies had historically been taken care of by midwives, especially in more rural and poorer areas. Medical science believed it knew better than midwives by the 1900s and I was unaware of the figurative pitched battle that occurred between the two factions.
Unfortunately, these issues are addressed with absolutely no subtlety at all. The expressed attitudes of all the characters in this book are very outspoken and quite modern. At times I felt like characters might break into a discussion about the current healthcare debate.
Granted, our narrator is not reliable. Emeline is pretty unbalanced. I don’t find any ambiguity in the narrative on this count. I also found her incredibly frustrating. While I understand that women often had no say in matters, Emeline makes utterly rash decisions and never ever sees any other way out of a situation. She was a bold enough character to work as an untrained medical volunteer before her marriage and to offer herself up for marriage, but never thinks that maybe she could, after she was married, at some point in the future, still pursue a nursing career.
Lastly, I found the nuts-and-bots of Carroll’s writing lacking. Her word usage was often strange and Emeline’s use of “kind of,” “uh,” and “um” became very annoying. I understand the want to relate “real” dialogue and maybe indicate that Emeline is young and unsure of herself, but this is a heavy-handed way of doing that.
Genre: Literary fiction.
Why did I choose to read this book? I had hoped that the plot was going to be more ambiguous about its main character’s sanity.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) I did. I almost did not.
Craft Lessons: Written dialogue is not realistic dialogue.
Format: Kindle eBook and Adobe Digital Edition.