Howe (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, 2009) sets her second novel among early-20th-century Bostonians fascinated by the power of both spiritualism and the new science of psychology.
Twenty-seven-year-old spinster Sibyl Allston lives a quiet life with her father Lan, a successful businessman who talks little about his youth as a sailor in the Far East. In 1915 both are still mourning the deaths of Sibyl’s mother, Helen, and younger sister Eulah, who drowned on the Titanic three years before. Except for her regular visits to the medium, Mrs. Dee, in hopes of making contact with her mother and sister, Sibyl is a retiring, conventional young woman. Then her younger brother Harlan is thrown out of Harvard, ends up in the hospital after a fight he will not discuss, and moves back into the family home along with a young woman named Dovie, whose background remains as murky as her relationship to Harlan. Dovie introduces Sibyl to a potentially dangerous habit in Boston’s Chinatown, but at the same time Sibyl’s former beau re-enters her life. Benton is now a psychology professor at Harvard who tries to help Sibyl by exposing Mrs. Dee as a fraud. But as the country drifts toward World War I, Sibyl begins to realize she may possess an unexpected gift as a seer, one that she unknowingly inherited from her father along with a taste for opium. Is knowing the future a gift or a curse, or does it depend on the angle through which it is viewed? Ultimately Sibyl learns that even within a world ruled by fate, choices can be made.
The slightly sordid melodrama and para-psychological philosophizing lean uncomfortably against a sappy romance.