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.
I am going to find this book very difficult to rate. The problem is that the novel is really well-written, and there's not really anything I can pinpoint as being wrong, but at the same time, I had an extremely hard time getting through it. I used to read historical fiction all the time, especially in high school, but maybe I'm just not feeling the love for this genre anymore. I'm more into the "wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am" type of books these days - short, and with not a lot of brain power or commitment involved!
But, enough about all that. Let's talk characters. Emeline, the narrator, is a young woman whose father dies a very painful death. On top of all this, Emeline's father has left the family heavily indebted, so Emeline decides to plead with her father's colleague in hopes that he and his wife will allow her to marry their son. Sooooo not the way things were done in those days, but Emeline must swallow her pride and do what's best for her family. By marrying John Dorr, she relieves the financial strain on everyone else, and that is only the first of the sacrifices Emeline must make. So, you can see that Emeline is a brave young woman. She is also very intelligent, and learned, having gone to college for a short while. We come to see some drastic changes and growth in Emeline throughout the course of the book. She starts off quite naive and prejudiced, but comes to see that class and social status do not necessarily determine a person's worth. She is eventually able to make friends and help people in her new town, although not easily and not without a lot of deception. There is also some question as to Emeline's sanity. I am going to diagnose her myself with paranoid schizophrenia, but all the reader really gets to know is that Emeline sees and hears things that aren't really happening. Very creepy, but also really cool! I love it when a character goes a little bit psycho!
The rest of the cast of characters is very much secondary to Emeline. There's the law partner and his wife, the town doctor and his wife, and the sheriff and his wife, along with the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and their wives - okay, just kidding about those last three! My point is that the other characters are not all that memorable. Some are snooty, some are kind, and some are misunderstood. The only really memorable character is Lottie, Emeline's hired servant, who Emeline eventually comes to befriend and rely on. But Emeline is definitely the star of the show in A White Room.
Why is this book called A White Room? Good question, and after reading the whole entire book, I still don't really know the answer. Like I said before, maybe this just isn't my genre, but I really didn't get the symbolism. Ooops!
What else can I tell ya? There's a great conflict in the last 50 pages or so that kept me reading today, and it shows a lot what society was like in the early 1900's. Think Anne of Green Gables, but with more scandalous scandals!