Title: Haunting Violet
Author: Alyxandra Harvey
Genre: Historical, Mystery, Supernatural, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury Childrens (US & UK)
Publication date: June 2011 (US)/July 4 (UK)
Hardcover: 352 Pages (US)
Violet Willoughby doesn’t believe in ghosts. But they believe in her. After spending years participating in her mother’s elaborate ruse as a fraudulent medium, Violet is about as skeptical as they come in all matters supernatural. Now that she is being visited by a very persistent ghost, one who suffered a violent death, Violet can no longer ignore her unique ability. She must figure out what this ghost is trying to communicate, and quickly because the killer is still on the loose.
Afraid of ruining her chance to escape her mother’s scheming through an advantageous marriage, Violet must keep her ability secret. The only person who can help her is Colin, a friend she’s known since childhood, and whom she has grown to love. He understands the true Violet, but helping her on this path means they might never be together. Can Violet find a way to help this ghost without ruining her own chance at a future free of lies?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did we get this book: ARCs from the Publishers (US & UK)
Why did we read this book: Both of us are fans of hauntings and ghost stories (being the only type of horror that Ana actually likes), and Haunting Violet seemed a perfect fit for both Smugglers to take on.
Ana: I love ghost stories (even if I am scared of them) and I love novels set in Victorian times, so reading Haunting Violet was pretty much a given. The potential was even greater considering that the heroine and narrator is a con artist who finds herself having to solve a very real murder with the added bonus of a sweet romance between childhood friends. And you know… I really enjoyed reading Haunting Violet. It was a fun, quick read but unfortunately that’s all it was as it never truly reached its potential for greatness.
Thea: First off, I have to disagree with Ana because I don’t think Haunting Violet is necessarily a horror title. It’s much more of a ghostly mystery (just because ghosts are in a book doesn’t mean they are horror, just as vampires or werewolves in a book are the same). Ahem. That said, I enjoyed Haunting Violet much more than dear Ana – it’s a scam job, a mystery, a novel about abuse and relationships and love – and I truly enjoyed it from beginning to end.
On the Plot:
Ana: Violet Willoughby has spent most of her childhood assisting her mother in her fraudulent séances. She doesn’t believe in ghosts and she wishes they could have a different life, but the options for a young girl with no means and no connections are not exactly that great. Still, being somewhat famous in the spiritualist circles has proved to be a potential way out for Violet with the prospect of a good marriage just within her grasp.
But, when Violet and her mother are invited to attend a house party in the state of their patron, Sir Jasper, Violet starts to see real ghosts. One of the visiting ghosts is the spirit of a murdered girl looking to catch her killer and only Violet can help. With the help of her childhood friend Colin, she sets out to investigate the murder and unveil the mystery and catch the villain.
Haunting Violet starts off really well and I truly loved its first 100 pages or so. I liked the writing style and Violet’s voice. I enjoyed reading about Violet’s moral struggle with regards to their way of life and her inability to break free from her mother. This struggle was even more interesting if you consider the background of the Victorian society and the few options afforded to a penniless, bastard, young woman like Violet. I also enjoyed Violet’s relationship with Colin and how it started to evolve from friendship to love. In addition I have always been strangely attracted to stories about séances and the craze that seemed to have spread out throughout Europe at that time. Not to mention that the first scenes with the ghosts were truly terrifying.
But those were the first 100 pages. I think the best way to explain how I felt about the story is how it seemed it never truly evolved much beyond those first 100 pages of introduction. It is like the author only but scrapped the surface of all the different threads that were presented to start with. Starting with the Victorian setting – some things were only but glossed over like issues relating to gender and class and the dialogue sounded extremely modern. All things considered, this is really nothing more than a Wallpaper Historical (in terms of accuracy and setting). Now, I don’t really mind reading wallpaper historical novels all that much and have in fact, enjoyed several of them throughout the years but that is as long as everything else in the novel works well: characters, plot, writing. But as it turned out, everything in Haunting Violet was sort of wallpaper-y, with no real substance. The romance develops without any real depth, the characters are wishy-washy, the mystery was contrived and lacked believability in the way that it was investigated. And the whole thing surrounding Violet’s “powers” sounded quite hokey actually: like for example, all of a sudden there was talk about of “third eye” and Violet learnt how to open and close it in her FIRST attempt. Not to mention that every time the ghost of the murdered girl showed up and Violet asked a direct question about her murderer, something would happen to prevent the ghost from clearing that up – and that was extremely contrived.
What started like a good read with a lot of potential, soon turned out to be a frustrating read with underdeveloped threads and characters, shortcuts and inconsistencies. It was still somewhat fun to read but I could see the potential for a truly great story but alas, it never came to be.
Thea: From the other side of Smuggler Headquarters, I have to say that I patently disagree. With regards to the setting and historical accuracy, I do agree that dialogue had a tendency to slip into the more modern vernacular, the setting itself didn’t seem inaccurate to me (but then again, I’m the American of the duo so take that with a grain of salt). There wasn’t any modern sensibility ham-handedly forced into the novel, and for that I was extremely grateful.1 But as to plotting, storytelling, thematics? Haunting Violet does a fantastic job of weaving a primary murder mystery alongside the story of a young girl’s struggle to find a place in the world, as she is a bastard daughter forced into a life of deception and thievery by a manipulative, abusive mother. The book does a fantastic job of examining the Victorian fascination with Spiritualism, and both the devotion and skepticism mediums invoked as seances became haute couture. I loved seeing the brashness of Violet’s mother, “Mrs. Willoghby,” as she ingratiates herself in high society with her many parlor tricks. I would argue that it is this storyline, Violet’s struggle to find a place in a society, acceptance from her mother, and her battle between her conscience and pragmatism, that is the core thematic arc of Haunting Violet.
Of course, at the heart of Haunting Violet, there is the mystery story as well. There’s the small matter that Violet – despite not believing in ghosts and being the daughter of London’s most famous spiritualist hack – starts to actually see ghosts. At Rosefield, Violet keeps seeing the ghost of a pale girl with bruises around her neck and wrist, dripping water and lillies. Soon, she learns the identity of her spectral visitor is Rowena Wentworth, a girl who mysteriously drowned the prior year. Rowena’s ghost will not rest until her twin sister is safe from the grasp of her murderer, and Violet, with the help of her friends Elizabeth and Colin, is the only one who can help discover the truth. Although the villain of the matter is fairly obvious (at least once all of the pieces are in place), I didn’t hold that against the book as the mystery unfolded in an organic, slightly spooky (in a good old fashioned ghost story) type of way.
Also, I loved that not everything is sunshine and ponies in this book – as befitting a penniless, bastard daughter of a defamed medium. The ultimate reveal comes to a violent crest of action and drama, and though our intrepid heroine saves the day, she doesn’t become the long-lost heiress to a fortune, nor does she marry her true love and live happily ever after. There’s happiness, to be sure (and I did enjoy the romance, but be warned it is a tertiary plot at best), but it isn’t a Disney-pretty-princess conclusion. And I liked that a lot.
On the Characters:
Ana: Character-wise, Haunting Violet presented the same sort of problem I had with the setting and the story. The seeds for good characters were ALL there. Violet was interesting to start with but….she was simply not developed enough as a character. I feel like I barely know her and what moved her which is basically how I feel about the majority of the characters (and there were SO many of them). I could just about see glimpses of awesomeness. Violet’s mother for example, had a really good shot at being to be a conflicted character and sympathetic villain but was nothing but one-dimensional villain. I know close to nothing about Colin beyond him being nice to Violet. There were again, glimpses of his past, but the conversations about it started but never ….ended.
Violet really seemed to struggle with her mother’s lack of ethic but did nothing about it. She wanted to investigate the mystery but her friends were the ones to really do the work – it is as though she was not an active character in her own story. Was that the point of her character arc?? I don’t think so – the denouement was resolved without Violet actively doing anything.
The fact that I actually liked them all (or perhaps I liked the idea of these characters) just adds to the overall frustration.
Thea: In contrast, I thought the characters were well-developed and rounded, especially where Violet, our protagonist, is concerned. Violet’s struggle is a tough one, as she must battle between her guilty conscience and the reality that this is the only way she and her mother can afford to feed themselves and make a living. As Colin puts it in the book, no one will hire Violet as a governess, because Ladies do not want overly-pretty governesses under their roofs. And, while Violet feels bad about drugging old ladies and deceiving her friends Lord Jasper and the young, spirited Elizabeth (daughter of an Earl), she has no qualms about pickpocketing, stealing silverware, or taking advantage of other snooty peers and high society types. The real struggle, however, is with Violet’s relationship with her beautiful, talented, yet petulant and cruel mother. Mrs. Willoghby is a manipulatress of the highest order, ruthlessly attempting to ingratiate herself in the peerage through her act as a medium and using her daughter as marriageable bait. Violet is constantly torn between embarrassment for her beautiful mother’s drinking and gleeful lack of propriety, and a desire to do right and earn her mother’s respect, if not affection. This struggle defines Violet’s character – embarrassed, ashamed, but responsible and reluctant to leave the mother she both reviles and admires. And that’s to say nothing of the ghost story arc that also shapes Violet over the course of the book – the discovery of her abilities, her fear and reluctance to acknowledge the truth, and the gradual acceptance to discover the villain responsible for a young girl’s death.
I enjoyed the other characters in the novel, too, especially Violet’s friend Elizabeth (who unfortunately does not get as much screen time) and the angry Tabitha, twin sister to the murdered Rowena. Of course, there’s also Colin, Violet’s childhood friend and love interest, who is handsome and conveniently there for Violet at every turn. Though I enjoyed the romance that blossoms between these two characters, I could have used a bit more backstory for Colin.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: Haunting Violet started off really well but turned out to be a frustrating read from the middle onwards. Still, I breezed through it fairly easily.
Thea: I really, truly liked this book – far more than I was expecting to like it. Haunting Violet is a tantalizing ghost story and murder mystery, fraught with seances and spirits, deception and secrets. But more than that, it is the story of a girl, coming into her own – a story that resonates in any time period, with any audience. Wholeheartedly recommended.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the Prologue:
I was nine years old when my mother decided it was time I took part in the family business. I was pretty enough now, she said, that I might be of use. I’d grown into my ears and my long neck and might be clever enough to handle myself. Besides which, she claimed she had no other option.
So that December, full of Christmas cheer and mulled wine, she’d changed her mind. It wasn’t until later that I realized it wasn’t Christmas cheer that had prompted her, but desperation.
Still, she’d promised me a visit to an actual bookshop where I might even be able to purchase my very own book if I did well. Until then I had only read discarded magazines or books tossed out into the alleys behind the shops and fine houses because of unsightly stains of damp or smoke damage.
I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, only that it was vitally important. Even Colin, who was only two years older than me but fancied himself more mature now looked grim. He’d come with his mother from Ireland, and had been orphaned and survived as a crossing boy, sweeping the street clean for the gentry when my Mother found him. She brought him home a month earlier to live with us, also contingent on how well we did that night. Crossing boys who were growing tall enough and strong enough to muscle the fine folk of Mayfair didn’t get many tips. Not to mention that he was a fair hand at pickpocketing and had to change corners every day so he wouldn’t get caught.
The snow was gathering slowly in the muddy streets as we left Cheapside. It turned the gray stones and dirty gutters into a landscape made from gingerbread and buttercream frosting. It made me hungry just to see it. My stomach growled loudly. Mother sent me a disapproving glance.
“Violet, a lady does not betray bodily needs.”
I nodded, looking down at my feet.
“A lady gets to eat, don’t she?” Colin murmured, but not so loud that she could hear him. He slipped me the end of a potato, wrapped in a rag, from his pocket. Usually it was insects he delighted in pulling out of his pockets, to see me squirm. Christmas cheer must be contagious this year. I wished it would last all the year long.
“But what will you eat?” I whispered back.
“I’m not hungry.”
He was lying. We’d both had a single muffin for breakfast and nothing since. I took a bite and handed him the other half.
You can read a full excerpt HERE.
Additional Thoughts: As we are an official stop on the Haunting Violet blog tour, we would be remiss if we didn’t tell you that you have a chance to win a copy of the book. Make sure to stop by the official facebook page for a chance to enter.
Ana: 5 – Meh.
Thea: 7 – Very Good, and leaning towards an 8.
Reading Next: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Buy the Book:
- As opposed to another Victorian novel I read this week, which had all the subtlety of a falling anvil as Women’s Rights! were flouted about as the main character constantly rails about her station. ↩