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Oak Park, Illinois, 1875. Isabelle Larkin s future like that of every young woman hinges upon her choice of husband. She delights her mother by becoming engaged to Gregory Gallagher, who is charismatic, politically ambitious, and publicly devoted. But Isabelle s visions of a happy, profitable match come to a halt when she witnesses her fiance commit a horrific crime and no one believes her.
Gregory denies all, and Isabelle s mother insists she marry as planned rather than drag them into scandal. Fearing for her life, Isabelle can think of only one escape: she feigns a mental breakdown that renders her mute, and is brought to Bellevue sanitarium. There she finds a friend in fellow patient Mary Todd Lincoln, committed after her husband s assassination.
In this unlikely refuge, the women become allies, even as Isabelle maintains a veneer of madness for her own protection. But sooner or later, she must reclaim her voice. And if she uses it to expose the truth, Isabelle risks far more than she could ever imagine.
Weaving together a thread of finely tuned suspense with a fascinating setting and real-life figures, Sarah Barthel’s debut is historical fiction at its most evocative and compelling.”
House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is cross-genre between historical fiction and thriller. The story is about Isabelle, a young woman about to get married to a charming bachelor, Gregory. Her fiancé is the kind of man that all women wanted and everyone especially Isabelle’s mother believed that she couldn’t have found a better suitor. However, after the engagement, Isabelle witnesses Gregory commit a horrible crime. She is left confused and scared for her life and makes the decision to go to the sanitarium for her safety. To achieve this, she decides to go mute and convince everyone of her insanity.
This book is set in 1875 and I think that the author did a great job in portraying the time period. I liked the description of the clothing, the corsets and long skirts that swept the floor. The horses and carriages and social norms made me get lost in the 19th century and in the lives of the characters. The importance of belonging to right social circles was also emphasized and some of the practices such as condemning women who lost their virginity before marriage were brought up in the book. What stood out even more is how issues such as mental illness were treated during that time. Being admitted to a sanitarium was enough to ruin a woman’s reputation and hence destroy her whole life. This illustrates just how brave Isabelle was to decide to go to the sanitarium despite the risks.
What I really liked……
I liked the Isabelle as the main character. She was so strong-willed. There were dire ramifications to her actions but she still went through with her charade of insanity to avoid getting married. She also went after Gregory despite the dangers. Women in the book are portrayed as being quite submissive but not this heroine. Her best friend, Lucy, was another endearing character especially due to her defiance to her parents,the arranged marriage and also her support of Isabelle who everyone else was shunning. Other notable characters included, Samuel and Mrs. Lincoln.
Despite Gregory being the obvious villain in the story, the most unlikable character was Isabelle’s mother. The woman was so concerned with reputation and making the right connections in life that she put everyone else ahead of her daughter. This conflict added to the tension in the story but still, that woman was despicable! However, I was intrigued by this angle and kept wondering how the relationship between mother and daughter would survive.
I really liked how the author mixed reality with fiction in this book. Bellevue sanitarium in Batavia, where Isabelle was admitted, actually existed at that time. The proprietors of the place are also characters in this book. Mrs. Lincoln who is also a key support character in the book spent time in the sanitarium during that period.
I read a little about the sanitarium and found this image online. Bellevue and Mrs. Lincoln are main features in this book
What I didn’t like so much….
The book has some interesting support characters including Mary Lincoln. I just wish we saw more them at the sanitarium. They were only mentioned briefly through their interactions with Isabelle. I wanted to know more about them and the conditions that brought them to Bellevue. I do understand that this is Isabelle’s story but those women really did seem interesting so it would have been nice to have their characters developed just a little bit more.
House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is a well-paced book that is quite easy to read. There are a number of twists as Isabelle’s fate hanged precariously. This added to the mystery and tension in the story. The issue of the importance of a woman’s reputation was at the background of this narrative and I found it quite interesting especially given the time period. The book has a great mix of characters with some being likeable and others quite unlikable like Isabelle’s mother but most of them were definitely memorable. I recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and mystery novels.
About the book