The Spirit Room

Written by Marschel Paul
Review by Sarah Johnson

The “spirit room” of the title, a rented space above a milliner’s shop in Geneva, New York, is a place where deceptions are initiated and innocence is lost. In Marschel Paul’s engrossing coming-of-age epic, set in the late 1850s, Isabelle “Izzie” Benton is seventeen and her sister Clara thirteen when their family moves to the Finger Lakes town. After their mother’s death – by drowning, possibly a suicide – their opportunistic father sees his chance to make money by forcing his daughters into the latest cultural craze. He sets them up as mediums, like the celebrated Fox Sisters, and they learn the best tricks for duping gullible audiences.

Their rise in popularity in the local Spiritualist community marks only the beginning of their adventures. If dealing with pressure from their controlling Papa isn’t enough, Izzie and Clara must protect Clara’s twin, Billy, from his abuse and care for their youngest sister, Euphora. At the same time, other men start noticing the attractive young women. Then a sudden decision made by Izzie pulls the sisters apart and leads them both into dark, shocking situations as they struggle to gain independence and find each other again. Revealing any more would dampen the pleasures of this unpredictable, wildly entertaining tale.

The historical atmosphere intriguingly combines small-town quaintness and mid-19th century fads and trends – “reform dress,” suffrage meetings, institutes for water-cure therapy – with a sobering look at women’s experiences. Paul doesn’t draw back from depicting the adult circumstances her sympathetic heroines face, and their stories have added poignancy because their viewpoints remain appropriate to their ages while their eyes open to the world’s realities.

Delightful period idioms make the background even more convincing, and although the novel is almost 600 pages long, the pacing never drags. The editing and production are top-notch, too. This is a fabulous read for fans of American women’s history.