Monday, July 8, 2013

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. 

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.

Emma is a victim of circumstance. When her father dies, as the eldest daughter, she is left to make a hard choice – watch her mother and family be turned out of their home destitute or marry the son of a neighboring family who can keep her and her family from severe poverty. She chooses the latter and makes the proposal to her future groom’s parents. Much to her surprise, her proposal is accepted and she soon finds herself married to John Dorr and swept away to a new location to start her new life.

She is shocked when she arrives at her new home. It is a forbidding home filled with horrible, tacky d├ęcor. The only room that is somewhat pleasing is her white bedroom. Nothing is as it seems however as she struggles to find her way out of a loveless marriage, an unfriendly circle of women, and an altogether isolated existence. Emma finds her relief in helping cure others – actions banned by the law and one which her lawyer husband works towards prosecuting.   
The White Room is a historical novel that delves into the difficulties women faced in Victorian and Edwardian times. It was a time when women were banned from working. Their only roles were to be wife or mothers. If unhappy, they often faced accusations of illness or madness. They were completely and utterly subjected to the rule of men backed up by the laws of the land. Through Emma, we see the drudgery of housework, the unrelenting menial demands, and the inability to break routine to pursue dreams and aspirations. Author Stephanie Carroll’s writing allows the reader to hurt along with the protagonist because of the injustice.

Although the message and moral of this story is strong, it comes through a rather intricate, interesting plot. The heroine is likeable, doing what she can to break free of what is causing her distress. Yet there is much for her to be victorious about. And I loved the happy ending…

The valuable content, depth, strong message, accurate historical details, and fascinating storyline make this a wonderful gothic style book. A great summer read and highly recommended.

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