Review: A White Room

Title:A White Room
Author: Stephanie Carroll
Genre: Historical fiction, young adult

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads summary:
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.

Emmeline is a young woman from a middle class family in turn-of-the-century America. She aspires to be a nurse, but doesn't have the guts to tell her parents. When her father dies suddenly, leaving the family bankrupt, she marries a near-stranger out of desperation. She and her new husband move to a new house, one that is suffocating, mysterious, and terribly creepy. Emmeline struggles with her loveless marriage, social politics, her husband's mysterious occupation, and keeping house, but there is only so much she can take before she cracks...

There was a lot I didn't like about the first half of this book. The main character is so frail and naive, says um or uh at the beginning of practically every sentence. We are supposed to sympathize with her for sacrificing so much and empathize with her struggles but she is so hopeless and naive that I had a hard time understanding why she broke down so easily. Also, nursing seemed so important at the beginning and then it faded into nonexistence for half the book before reappearing.
The second half was thankfully an improvement. Emmeline rediscovers her passion for nursing and begins to stand up for herself. She becomes far less weak and begins to embrace her independence. As she grows, you see more of the corruption in Labellum, which was interesting except for when Emmeline started getting preachy (view spoiler)Then the madness thing comes up again, leading to my biggest annoyance with this book.

My biggest complaint is that this book tried to be two stories at once, and they didn't mesh well. One is the dutiful miserable housewife who secretly pursues her dreams of nursing. The other is a burdened housewife who descends into hysteria. Now tell me how the same person can become more independent and empowered while also becoming more timid and psychotic. it judge wasn't a convincing scenario. There would be periods where she would be very resourceful, brave, and independent, and then mutter something about the house creeping or constricting. The strangest thing is that you're supposed to root for her because she is falsely accused of having hysteria, but she actually does act manic a few times. I think the insanity thread could have been dropped entirely until the very end, where circumstances of that situation would have been reason enough to induce hysteria without the previous melodrama.

I thought the author did an excellent job with the characterization of the "charity" women. Many of them had hidden sides, although outwardly they seemed so ruthless. I also thought the change in Emmeline was believably gradual. However, the cheesy attempts at making the house creepy and the contradictory messages took away from the novel.

* A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

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