A White Room

Written by Stephanie Carroll
Review by Joanna Urquhart

Stephanie Carroll’s 2013 novel A White Room opens with an epigraph by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is apt, since the novel owes a clear debt to that author’s iconic 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper in both its atmosphere and its sometimes surreal portrait of the quiet madness and oppressions faced by “well-born” married women of a century ago.

As Carroll’s novel opens, young Emeline Evans is dreaming of becoming a nurse in 1900, only to see those dreams dashed when the sudden death of her father forces her to marry a dour lawyer named John Dorr (a man, needless to say, whom she does not love) because he can help support the rest of her family. She moves with him to a house far from her St. Louis, Missouri home, and in short order her boredom, sadness, and frustration combine to make the house seem like a living, malevolent presence.

Emeline struggles valiantly against this oppression, eventually taking work as an unlicensed nurse despite the heavy penalties detection would have brought on her. Carroll portrays these struggles with a great deal of grace and pathos, and in Emeline she’s created a truly memorable character.