Houses of Stone, by Barbara Michaels

>> Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I've just finished Houses of Stone, by Barbara Michaels, a reread.

Karen Holloway, an ambitious assistant professor at an unnamed women's college in the Northeast, learns of a previously unpublished novel by a 19th-century author known only as Ismene. Since she herself made Ismene famous in the academic world by publishing a volume of her verse, Karen knows her reputation will skyrocket if she can buy the manuscript from the bookseller who found it and issue it with her commentary. She and her colleague Peggy Finneyfrock (a well-drawn character) travel to a dilapidated estate in Virginia's Tidewater region in search of clues to Ismene's identity. But other academics are also in hot pursuit, and Karen finds herself haunted by nightmares brought on by the claustrophobic themes in Ismene's work.
I had a little bit of a problem getting into it, but I was soon caught up with it again (luckily, I remembered very little from the last time I read it a few years ago) and loving it. An A-.

Barbara Michaels always writes intelligent, literate books, and this one was an excellent example. The whole plot, about the manuscript and the quest to identify its author, with its feminist undertones, was wonderful, absolutely fascinating to me. I even loved the little references to various books and stories, like A Jury of her Peers which I'll be reading ASAP.

Not to mention, I love gothics, so I adored the plot of Houses of Stone, the manuscript itself. It sounds like something I'd actually enjoy reading.

The characterization, not only of Karen, but of the whole host of secondary characters, was beautifully done. I confess that even though sometimes she comes close to preaching, I always enjoy the way Michaels pokes fun at all those things I despise, like people like that foul Violet Fowler, Karen's landlady. And speaking of her, the scene in which Karen delivers a speech to the local literary society, was itself worth the price of the book. OMG, I couldn't stop laughing when I imagined the faces of all those close-minded conservative bigots, feeling all so superior, going in to hear a lecture on "Nineteenth Century Lady Writers" and receiving "The Pen as Penis" :-D

Something interesting was that for the first time in a Barbara Michaels book, I didn't guess who the hero was. That was a surprise, really, but not a bad one.

Oh and I found a little Easter Egg early in the book: at one point, when Karen describes the beginning of the manuscript, with the two sisters arriving at the house of a relative after the death of their father, her friend Peggy mentions that the plot sounds familiar, that she read a book like that once, and that it had Wolf in the title. I'm pretty sure she was refering to an old Michaels book: Sons of the Wolf. I just LOVE those little details!


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