Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: The House Girl

Well, it looks like my snow week has come to an end (so disappointing), but I did get a TON of reading, as well as lesson planning and house things, completed during the week off. I recently finished The House Girl by Tara Conklin and once I started it, I found it completely engrossing.

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I have always considered the phrase "page turner" to be a wonderful way to describe a truly well-written novel, one where, as the reader, I actually care about the story and the characters. "Page turner" is really the only way I can think to describe The House Girl. I finished the novel in less than a day, staying up late into the night because I just had to know what happened next.

The novel is comprised of two interwoven narratives: Josephine Bell, a house slave in Virginia in 1852, and Lina Sparrow, a novice lawyer in New York in 2004. Josephine completely stole my heart. She is different, and, in a way, more privileged than most other plantation slaves one learns about in history class; her mistress has taught her to read and allows her comforts that many other slaves would never dream of, including painting and drawing. Regardless, she is still enslaved and dreams of her freedom. 

Lina is a corporate lawyer attempting to climb the ladder in her field. She is chosen by one of the partners in her firm to work on finding a plaintiff for a slave reparations lawsuit that a client wants to bring against corporations that benefited from slave labor in the 1700 and 1800s. In doing research for her case, Lina learns about Josephine while at a gallery exhibit for LuAnn Bell, Josephine's mistress who is also a celebrated artist. Some critics believe that Josephine is the actual artist of LuAnn's art and this controversy has made headlines, leading Lina to believe Josephine's descendants would make the perfect plaintiffs for her case.

The story alternates between Lina and Josephine's points of view and is supplemented with letters written by Dorothea Rounds, an abolitionist who helped her undertaker father as a stop on the Underground Railroad, to her sister Kate, and a twenty page letter written by Caleb Harper, a disgraced medical student and brother-in-law of Dorothea. I really liked Conklin's use of the letters. It was a creative way to incorporate important background details without slowing down the action.

Josephine's chapters were nothing short of amazing. Her character comes alive with vivid detail. The reader can actually feel the tension, pain, frustration, longing, and the fleeting happiness she experiences during her life. While I wanted her to run away from the plantation and become free, I worried for her safety at the same time; I liked her so much as a character that I could not bear anything happening to her.

In contrast, Lina's chapters seemed rushed. Her story moves at a quicker pace and is full of coincidences that seem too good to be true in her efforts to find out more about Josephine. I wish Lina was more likable and developed, more like Josephine, but these differences helped to highlight their contrasts.

Overall, I give The House Girl an 8 out of 10. It pulls the reader in and will cause you to reflect on the reasons that lead us to make our choices and the reason we turned out to be the person we are.

P.S. A very happy birthday to my wonderful mother. You are the best mom ever and I hope that I can one day be as amazing as you are. Love you!!!

Mommy and I on my wedding day

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