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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

This novel tells two stories. First is the story of Josephine, a slave girl in Virginia whose mistress is a wannabee artist--while Josephine really is talented. The second is the story of Lina, a lawyer in modern-day New York City, working on a slavery reparations case and searching for descendants of a slave who would be good plaintiffs for the case, when she stumbles across Josephine's story.

I found Lina's story much more compelling. Josephine's, while overall not bad, did strike me as a bit cliched (it starts off with her master hitting her in the face for absolutely no reason and no history of doing that, and it comes to nothing, just gratuitous violence.) Lina felt a lot more real, more well-developed. While she's searching for the truth about Josephine, she's also searching for the truth about her own mother who died when she was a small child and about whom she knows next to nothing. But her artist father might be finally ready to talk with her.

The book does move forward at a pretty good pace, but a chunk of the book that is a letter from the 1860s did drag, as did another collection of letters. I wish she had incorporated the content into the storyline more, rather than giving us the unexpurgated, full letters, which were written entirely too on-point to be considered remotely realistic, and yet were too slow-going and artificially historically-written to flow well.

The above storyline is quite enough for one book, but throw in a controversy about the legitimacy of the paintings, an entire subplot about another family working the underground railroad, a missing baby, and it started to feel like she's dumped in everything but the kitchen sink.

Now don't get me wrong, I did overall like the book well enough, but it did have some first-time novelist flaws. And I just wasn't in the right mood for the book, as I am feeling overdosed on Civil War-slavery novels right now. I liked the book well enough as a whole, and it did have some interesting discussion points for our book club, but it was flawed.

My mother bought me this book for my birthday last year.

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