The story begins in 1912, and then proceeds, in detail, for a period of about five years. Several times, it employs the use of interludes to move back in time, almost five decades, to 1868, to introduce the reader to Harlan Allston’s 17 year old incarnation, and foreshadows the things to come. The book improves as you read on, so don’t give up if it seems a bit slow in the beginning with the tedium of Boston propriety.
The Alston’s, a well to do family, live on Beacon Street, at a time when social standing is de rigeur, and the marriage of a daughter was of prime concern. Spinsterhood was often mocked by people of the upper class. Presenting one’s child to the world, to find an appropriate mate, was a major undertaking.
Harlan Allston, made his fortune in the shipping industry. His wife, Helen, a good deal younger than he, had given up hopes for her elder daughter’s marriage. Sybil, a very proper young woman, had refused one marriage proposal and did not receive a second, from Benton Derby, the one she longed for, as he married someone else and moved to Italy. Helen decides to take her younger, more outspoken daughter, Eulah, on a trip to Europe to prepare her to enter society and find a suitable marriage mate. The whirlwind tour is a success and they are very happy when they make their return trip home, unaware of the tragedy to come, on the magnificent ill-fated ship, The Titanic.
The story is a romantic piece of historic fiction, and it covers many of the major events and issues of the time, including many real people that did exist, as well as characters made up from the author’s imagination. The sinking of the Titanic, illicit use of opiates and its addiction, the horrors of World War I, the cultural and political climate of the time, are all accurately portrayed. The lifestyle of the gentry is well described, illustrating their carriage and their demeanor, their attention to manners and proper decorum, coupled with the snobbism and prejudices of the day. The early belief in spiritualism and clairvoyance add to the storyline. We witness behavior patterns that go to the depths of depravity, and alternatively reach the heights of heroism. There is an interesting parrot Baiji, that is introduced at the beginning of the tale, in Shanghai, and makes additional appearances until the end, in Boston. It seems to symbolize change and progress, as the narrative moves forward. There is an Asian theme concerning opiates, threaded throughout the book, as well.
Ships and water are major themes, as is addiction and clairvoyance or second sight. The sinking of both The Titanic and The Lusitania are catalysts that move the story forward and mark momentous changes in the lives of the characters, moving the story toward its conclusion.
Katherine Howe writes with an easy to read prose, often injecting subtle humor and eloquently describes the grief and tragedy the character’s experience. Her characters feel as if they belong in the time of the book and you will easily recognize them and get to know them well. The introduction of ideas that are somewhat supernatural flows well and does not feel awkward. At the end, you will learn of the author’s connection to that time period. It would be helpful if the reader enjoyed delving into the supernatural a bit, especially with extra-sensory projection and/or psychic phenomenon, since they are major ideas presented in the book.
In my reading, I discovered that in the Chinese culture, the parrot symbolizes freedom and life. It is the bearer of good news, signifies change and wisdom and represents our hopes and ultimate goals. How we live our lives, long or short, is a very major theme of the book. Were we able to leave a permanent, positive mark on society, did we live the best life we could? Dovie, the unconventional girlfriend of Sybil’s brother Harlan, brings the circle of life full circle and explains how the characters have each made their own indelible mark on life.