Review: House of Silence by Sarah Barthel

House of Silence

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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.

Review. Text on the string. Conceptual 3d image

Source: Netgalley

My Rating: 4/5 stars

In 1875, it just wasn’t proper for a woman to have an opinion of her own, let alone, voice that opinion.  When Isabella Larkin not only voices an opinion, but voices one that disparages her fiancée, well, things go so very, very wrong.  In fact, things go so wrong, Isabelle finds herself in desperate need of protection and the only place she can find that protection is in a sanitarium as a voluntarily committed patient.

When Isabelle checks into the sanitarium, she does so as a self-imposed mute.  Until she can prove the truth of her words, Isabelle intends to keep her silence and from the safety of the sanitarium, she can bide her time and form a plan.  Trouble is, a woman going about on her own in the late 19th century just wasn’t proper so proving her story isn’t going to be easy.  In fact, in order to help herself, Isabelle is going to have to trust someone and that hasn’t gotten her anything but trouble in recent history.  She trusted bother her fiancé and her mother and those two took betrayal to an epic new level.

Life in the sanitarium isn’t at all what Isabelle expected.  The woman range from the truly mentally ill to the in-desperate-need-of-rest, and all contribute to the community in some way.  From gardening to sewing, the women are generally occupied during the times they are not with one of the doctors.  For Isabelle, the safety of the sanitarium and the hours of manual labor allow her time to ponder her situation and suss out a way to prove her story.

As it happens, Isabelle isn’t quite as safe as she originally thought, and when her fiancé’s lackeys start sniffing around the sanitarium, Isabelle’s contentions about her fiancé are confirmed.  With the few clues the lackeys left behind, Isabelle begins to put the pieces together regarding her fiancé and his shady past.  But, Isabelle doesn’t work alone, and those she enlists to help her are of the most surprising element.

The path to proving her story isn’t an easy one as Isabelle is incredibly vulnerable when she goes outside the confines of the sanitarium.  Her companions (she must have them!) are the only two people in the world she truly trusts, and both frequently try and talk her out of her course of action.  But, Isabelle is determined, and even when her life is threatened, she persists.  Her fiancé proves to be as dangerous as she already knew him to be and by the time all is said and done, Isabelle damn-near loses her life.  What she gains, however, is far more precious and worth every chance Isabelle takes.

The Bottom Line:  I have long been a fan of historical fiction, and House of Silence certainly fits the bill.  The historical aspects of this read can be found in both the sanitarium and the secondary character of the widowed Mrs. Lincoln.  With there being only very limited information surrounding these two elements, the fictitious story of Isabelle Larkin was concocted as a means by which to tell Mrs. Lincoln’s story.  The most fascinating parts of House of Silence revolved, not around Mrs. Lincoln, but around life in the sanitarium and the lengths a woman had to go to in the late 19th century to not only ne heard, but believed.  I can’t imagine Isabelle’s story was an isolated event (though perhaps not all as extreme!) and her struggle for vindication must have been one fought by many women of the period.  For me, Mrs. Lincoln was nothing more than a means by which to further Isabelle’s story rather than the other way around.  The mystery surrounding Isabelle’s fiancé isn’t all that deep or dangerous, but it is just right for this read.  While the overall tone of the book is somewhat dark and subdued, there is an HEA sure to satisfy most readers.

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