When I think of Women’s Suffrage, or the right of women to vote, it seems very far-removed to me. It is not something we think about that much today, it is a right I have always enjoyed, as has my mother. But her mother was a child during the time when women were granted the right to vote, and she must have remembered it. I wish she were around so I could ask her about it.
Even so, I do know something about being a woman in what is still a man’s world. I see injustice, have felt belittled because of my gender, and watched males be favored over me. Even at eight years old I watched a male classmate receive more math instruction than me, even though we were both struggling.
My mother has told me that when she and Dad were looking for their first house in the early 70’s that she had to write a letter to the bank promising not to have children until Dad could made enough on his salary so she could stay home. That’s right, you heard me.
Cat Winters has written an amazing book. It has everything: quirky characters, a little magical realism, a plot that careens around corners, and a smart portrayal of Women’s Suffrage in Portland, OR in 1900.
Olivia Mead is the daughter of a Portland dentist, a man who seems to be famous for enjoying his work extracting teeth and applying leeches to swollen gums. Add to that horror that Olivia’s mother abandonded them for the stage in New York and you get the picture of what her home life is like: stifling, lonely, and tedious. She is an avid reader, her favorite is the recently-published novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, and feels women should have the right to use their voice. Her father does not agree.
On Halloween, the night of her seventeenth birthday, Olivia is treated to a hypnotist’s show at the theater. To Olivia it is a mystical and deliciously frightening treat, especially when she is called up on stage to be a participant. Henri Reverie is a handsome young man with a French accent who puts Olivia in such a trance he is able to balance her rigid form on the backs of two chairs, and stand on her stomach, much to the horror and delight of the audience.
But Olivia’s interaction with the mysterious young man is not over. When her father learns she was at a rally for Women’s Rights, he hires the young hypnotist to remove all traces of rebellion from his daughter’s brain. While Henri does not agree with her father’s idea, he is desperate for the money to pay for surgery for his ailing sister.
The upshot is that while she is no longer able to argue with her father, she now sees the world as it truly is. Men who are against women’s right to vote appear vampiric, women who are belittled by their husbands and fathers seem to disappear before her very eyes. It is horrifying to Olivia and she seeks out Mr. Reverie to put her back the way she was.
But even if she can go back, should she?
Good heavens, this was a great read. Cat Winters pulled me in on the very first page and had me hooked through the entire novel. The plot never lagged, never slowed. The magical realism was just the right touch to make the story atmospheric and dark without making the plight of women in the 1900s seem insignificant. She did a great job of weaving the history of Women’s Suffrage with the plot and made Olivia a perfectly flawed but extremely likable character.
The book itself is a treasure of design. Many chapters begin with a photograph or piece of ephemera and a quote of the times. Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Carrie Nation, Bram Stoker and Kate Chopin all make quotable appearances. The chapter headings, endpapers, and cover art all make the book even more atmospheric and dark. It is a jewel of a book from all angles.