Houses of Stone - Barbara Michaels

Sometimes it's easy to forget how brilliant, capable and well-educated Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Mertz was. By all rights, we should really call her Dr. Mertz, since she was awarded a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1952. 

 

I haven't read a lot of her Amelia Peabody series, where she really puts that Egyptology doctorate to work, although the few I've read I've enjoyed. I have a pronounced weekness for mid-twentieth century Gothic Romance, which is why I've read a lot more of her so-called gothic romances.

 

Houses of Stone barely hits the romance genre. There are two love interests, one of whom turns out to be every bit as despicable as I predicted, the other who redeems himself somewhat. The real love story in this book is between the main character, Karen, and her scholarship. 

 

I didn't struggle with Karen as much as MBD did - she was prickly, angry, suspicious and occasionally she got things absolutely wrong. She was also over being condescended to and treated like an adorable but wayward child.

 

The scene in the library where she regales a room full of old biddies with their first taste of feminist criticism in a talk entitled "The Pen as Penis" or something like that was hilarious. As an aside, I would point out that the poisonous Mrs. Fowler who roped her into speaking to her book club for free had no expectation that Bill Meyer, a man, would do the same.

 

I also thoroughly enjoyed the discussions about the history of the gothic novel. Barbara Michaels sly sense of humor comes through on several occasions, including the very end, with the restoration of a painting. She isn't as successful in painting the gothic atmosphere in this one as in some of her others, but that's just fine. The strengths of the book make up for the other elements that Michaels leaves intentionally underdeveloped.

 

Karen isn't interested in being the heroine of her own gothic romance. She wants to make intellectual discoveries that will set her discipline on fire, and being the persecuted innocent woman at the center of a gothic melodrama would just get in the way of accomplishing what she sets out to do. The villains are disarmingly pedestrian: an old biddy with money problems, a couple of competitors who will stop at nothing to beat her, and a society that refuses to take serious women seriously.

 

Well done, Dr. Mertz.