Just plain good

A White Room - Stephanie  Carroll

3.5 - 4 stars

This past year, my family has had to endure many hardships, the greatest of which was dealing with my grandpa's death. Coming back from university to see a man who had once been so strong and healthy suddenly bedridden is something I'll never forget. But even worse, was watching him waste away, day after day. The doctors tried everything: his kidneys were failing, so they put him on dialysis; he was constantly nauseous, so they gave him special medicine; he had a chest infection, so they tried to get rid of it. But nothing worked. Each of these treatments usually led to another negative effect, until the point where my grandpa decided he couldn't take it anymore. Knowing he would die, he took himself off of dialysis, forced my family to take him home, and passed away less than a week later.

The reason I'm telling you this story, is that it really helped me sympathize with and relate to Emeline. The book opens with the most fantastic prologue:

"My father died with the taste of blood on his lips. To think that's why I now sat covered in blood. That's why there were red handprints on the walls, crimson footprints on the floor, and screaming streaks across my white dress"

"Now I had to choose. I could fight for my freedom-my sanity-or I could keep the promise I'd made my father. After all, it had been such a simple request made with blood-smeared lips"

To be honest, if this prologue hadn't intrigued me so much, I probably would have stopped reading this book around 30% in.

People deal with grief in various different ways. After my grandpa died, my mom thankfully channeled her sadness into pottery, as my Nana had asked her to make an urn for my grandpa. It was heartbreaking, but exactly what she needed. On the other hand, Emeline deals with her grief in a much more dramatic way. She descends into madness, what the doctors call 'hysteria' (more about this later). The house around her comes alive: the furniture is out to get her, imaginary people now occupy the empty rooms, and there is a beast in the room next to her, just waiting to see what she does next. At the same time, there are huge gaps in the story that really frustrated me. However, those are dealt with later, and I believe the author used this technique as a tool to introduce Emeline's madness and to describe the way things happen so someone who has been through such a shock. While it was well written, I would have stopped reading this book, as nothing really happened aside from Emeline ranting about the crazy house and trying to expel her madness. If it weren't for the prologue, I don't think I would have continued at this point. But, I am so thankful that I did.

Something happens to Emeline that shocks her out of her madness. However, it is still there, lurking. The beast still stalks her, the furniture still watches her, and the people in the empty rooms are ever present, but she manages to look past it all and invest her energy in something she loves. The problem is, it's illegal, and her cold and distant husband who is a lawyer, is tasked with persecuting people who are doing the same thing as Emeline. As you can imagine, everything blows up in the end, but it ended in a way I didn't actually expect.

Understanding the political environment and debates at this time was integral to Emeline's story. Stephanie Carroll does a fantastic job of fitting in issues of abortion and hysteria without info dumping. There was no 'pro-life', 'pro-choice' debate at the turn of the 20th century. Abortion was considered a crime, and people were sent to jail for it. Similarly, mental illness is not treated the same as it is today. A doctor diagnoses Emeline with hysteria, which was believed to have been caused by the uterus roaming around the body and messing with the brain. How crazy is that!? . Anyway, apparently one way to treat hysteria is by giving 'manual treatment' (ie. basically using a vibrator to stimulate an orgasm or giving a woman a hysterectomy). I just find these things so fascinating. The way madness/mental illness was treated is just so different that it's difficult to fathom. People who admitted to being mental went straight to jail, while in this day and age it is often used as a tool to keep them out. The book also deals with an issue that is even more controversial than these two: (view spoiler). I don't want to talk about it too much, because it plays a huge role in the book, and is still an extremely controversial issue today.

Aside from the masterful incorporation of these debates and issues, Stephanie Carroll also writes beautifully. Some of these passages really kept me going throughout the first part of the book:

"I imagined a splash of sunset color in the fall, the broad leaves turning orange, yellow, and a blazing red before blanketing the ground with a sea of fire"

"She could burst out into the world of grass, sky, and lavender, but she knew that if she broke through the barricade, everything she protected would crumble, suffocate, and wither behind her"

"It opened to reveal that all the furniture in the parlour was moving, dancing. The winding appendages of the bizarre tables and chairs were actually twisting and twirling. The legs were flailing, and the statues and pictures were sashaying."

In the end, I just really loved this story. I enjoyed watching Emeline's transformation, and seeing her challenged. I really liked the progression of her and her husband John's relationship. Supporting characters like Lottie and Ethel were well-developed, and the characters who conspire against Emeline are creepy and self-serving, yet possibly redeemable.

Guys, if you want some realistic historical fiction that deals with difficult issues, that doesn't allow a love story to overcome the plot, and that has you really feeling for the characters involved, go and read this right now.

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