A White Room
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.
This book has a lot to offer in terms of history and a wide variety of themes. The writing in this book is gorgeous which really lifts the story up a notch. It’s also based around a very interesting main story, something that I have not yet come across in my years of reading. So that made me instantly take a liking to the story and ready to delve into this book. And I’m very glad that I did because this book was definitely worth it!
The story of Emeline who goes mad in this empty house is a very captivating one. Right away it feels extremely personal because it feels very truthful. It gives us the ugly truths about what Emeline had to give up for the sake of her family and how she is having a hard time to deal with the aftereffects. The book definitely focuses on the feelings within our main character here, but it never drops the ball on the story. Things are continuously happening which is something that I really like. Life doesn’t stop happening just because you have certain feelings.
Emeline is a great character with a great burden to bear. I would not want to be in her situation any time soon because she has given up so much for her family. But I felt a lot of sympathy for her and how she handled things. John was a very interesting character as well, certainly as we got to know more about him and how he feels about the situation. It takes a while for this to come into play but when it does, it creates a deeper story.
The writing in this book was very good and I enjoyed it immensely. It did a great job of telling the story with rich details to make it feel more real and intense, but at the same time I never felt that it would overwhelm me in any way. It definitely walks the line on what to describe and what not to describe. It creates this authentic feeling which definitely adds to the book. I imagine if there had been less descriptions of how things were done, the time period would have become irrelevant to the story. So this descriptive writing was definitely a must for this story. The pacing in this book was pretty good as well. I just had a little bit of trouble with the part where Emeline was going mad. In that part of the book the pacing changed, and I imagine this was done purposefully so to aid in the madness, but it did irk me a bit.
I would have actually given the book four and half stars if only Goodreads would allow it. Because I really did enjoy this book a whole lot, and the themes that were ingrained in it felt very true. The only reason of why I knocked off (half) a star is that I had a bit of a tough time connecting with Emeline during her madness. Obviously this is because I haven’t been there and it was just hard for me to place myself in her shoes. But through the gorgeous writing this was less of a problem than it could have been.
It is my great pleasure to be able to add this interview with Stephanie Carroll to this review. Let’s meet the brilliant brain behind A White room!
About the Author
As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Her dark and magical writing is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).
Stephanie blogs and writes fiction in California, where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy. Her website is www.stephaniecarroll.net.
A White Room is her debut novel.
Where did the inspiration to write this book come from?
The primary inspiration was the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Perkins wrote it in the late nineteenth century. It’s about a woman diagnosed with hysteria and confined to her room as a form of treatment. Her doctor husband won’t allow her to do anything but rest because it was believed stimulation would worsen her condition.
So the story is written as if she is writing down her thoughts in secret whenever she can, and she just keeps talking about how all she has to do is stare at this horrendous wallpaper in her room. She grows obsessed with it, starts seeing it move, starts seeing a woman trapped behind it.
In the end she goes mad. In the last scene, she is “creeping” around the room, tearing off the wallpaper, just laughing as everyone who basically acted as her jail-keepers watches horrified. When you read it, you can tell she’s finally gotten her freedom and her revenge.
I did a vlog a while back where I talk more about “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I also did a vlog where I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” if anyone wants to hear it. It’s a short story so I was able to read it in the span of a YouTube video.
Were the themes in this book decided upon early on during the writing or did they form naturally within the story?
A little of both. Some I had from the very start and others developed as the story developed. The focus on women’s experiences was definitely one that was there from the start. The themes that coincide with those from the “The Yellow Wallpaper” were also determined from the beginning.
What sort of research did you have to do while writing this book to give the story this authentic feeling?
I did all kinds of research, but the key to creating authenticity was the focus on the details of everyday life, as in how Emeline brushed her teeth and took baths. I had wanted to show how Victorians lived day to day. I wanted the reader to be right there with Emeline cleaning the house, getting dressed, and preparing food. I honestly wished I could have incorporated more of those details, but at some point it starts to detract from the story.
How did you come up with the hallucinations in the rooms?
This is a great question! Warning SYMOBOLISM SPOIL ALERT: The people in the rooms represent Emeline in various roles of her life that she looks back on with longing and regret. There’s a woman Emeline calls the caregiver, a young woman with hopes and dreams, and a little girl. The caregiver is also preparing a young boy for the end. I’ll leave that one for you to figure out. ; )
What’s really weird is that I didn’t design them that way originally. I created these characters by randomly trying to imagine people in the rooms the way Emeline might have. For a while they kind of represented these characters that Emeline had imagined as the former occupants of the house, but thanks to some expert advice from a literary pro, I realized I was missing a great opportunity to reflect Emeline’s inner turmoil and grief.
What can we expect from you in terms of writing after this debut novel?
I plan to keep writing and getting books out. My dream would be to have a huge list of titles published. I’m going to stick with the late Victorian and Gilded Age for a while since it’s my expertise. I even write a blog called The Unhinged Historian that focuses on the dark side of the Victorian Era and Gilded Age.
A new development though – my books are going to start incorporating magical realism. Magical realism is a literary technique where the writer interweaves magic and reality and treats magic as if it is reality. Readers are kind of getting a taste of this with Emeline’s hallucinations in A White Room, but technically it’s not magic. Some masters of magical realism include Alice Hoffman and Margot Livesey.
I’ve already written the first draft of my second novel The Binding of Saint Barbara, which revolves around the first death by electrocution in Auburn Prison, NY in 1890. It’s going to focus on the prison warden’s daughter who has the patron saint of lightning, Saint Barbara, living inside her. While Charlotte’s family is wrapped up with issues of death, Charlotte learns lessons of life after meeting a strange boy, a boy Charlotte’s saint refuses to let her ignore.
What are some of the things that you really need while you are writing (snacks, drinks, etc.)?
I cannot help but suggest your readers check out this silly YouTube video I created about a year ago because it answers this question with some funny visuals.
I like to have music – the kind depends on how I’m feeling. I was listening to a lot of Keane in the early years of writing A White Room. I also like to have something to fiddle with like a slinky or Baoding Balls – I just had to Google those to figure out what they are called. If you don’t know – watch the video. I also usually have my Chihuahua Coconut in my lap – if I’m sitting. I type standing up much of time because I struggle with back pain and scoliosis. So I also have a lot of back support gadgets that I use while writing too. Then of course I have to have various books for referencing purposes like my writer’s thesaurus, and I have this awesome thesaurus on body language.
Do you have a set place for writing or can you write pretty much anywhere?
I actually have my own office space in my house set aside for writing and about a year ago I stopped using it and haven’t been able to get back in there. I actually have “Move Back Into Office” at the bottom of a very long to-do list. I don’t have a specific space where I have to work, but I do have this weird thing where I can’t work where I’m supposed to.
It’s the second time we’ve moved my office for this reason too. We have one of those seriously awesome attic rooms with the slanted ceiling, which makes it seem like it would be perfect for creative thought, but I never wanted to go up there! Yet, I can write at Starbucks like it’s nothing!
How do you handle the stress that comes along with publishing a book?
Who said anything about handling it? ;-)
Honestly, I’m still learning. Goodness I hadn’t even finished learning how to handle normal stress! I think the biggest thing has been to take breaks when I need them, manage my time wisely, and not put too much pressure on myself. Those little lessons have helped me the most so far. That and chocolate.
What did it take to go from the idea to the book and how long did it take?
Conducting the research is what really helped me develop the idea fully. Every time I found a historical story, anecdote, or detail that I liked, I thought oh then this could happen and then that. Of course the story also developed a lot through the editing process, which took years. I got the idea in 2008 and published in 2013.
Keep in mind that I wasn’t working on it every single day during that period. I wrote an entire first draft for my second novel during that time too. Novels take a long time because you have to put them down for a while and come back with a fresh perspective, and you have to do that many times. When you do come back, you can see things that you didn’t see before.
One of the biggest changes I made from when I first started to when I finally published was the involvement of Emeline’s family in this story. In the original first draft, she didn’t have a brother, and her parents played very small roles, her father the least of all. He didn’t even die in the original version! Don’t worry that wasn’t a spoil. For those who haven’t read this yet – you find out he died in the first sentence.
Do you have any book recommendations for the readers who enjoyed this book?
Definitely! Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, Megan Chance’s An Inconvenient Wife, and Margot Livesey’s Eva Moves the Furniture. All three are similar in time period, subject matter, dark themes, and the magical aspects.
How do you take your mind off of writing/what sort of hobbies do you have?
I paint a little but am kind of bad at it because I do it very rarely. I have a couple artsy/crafty hobbies that I don’t do often but enjoy when I do, like Japanese Ink Painting and I make picture frame collages out of scrapbook paper. I have a keyboard I haven’t touched yet, but got because I really want to learn how to play the piano.
My most involved hobbies are candle making and fire dancing! Yeah, you didn’t expect that did you? =) I perform as Rayvn in the group Twisted Embers. I dance with fire fans and fire poi. Check out photos on Facebook.
Thanks for taking the time to answer all of these questions and by doing so, giving us a little more insight into the book and the writing process behind it!
You can find Stephanie Carroll here:
And these are her blogs:
Are you interested in buying this book?
Available in Print $14.99 and eBook $3.99 (Kindle, Nook, Sony, e-pub)