Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

A big thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC of this novel.  I have been looking forward to reading it for ages, and finally sat down yesterday to pick up where I'd left off a few weeks ago.  I was mentally ready to dive in--and found myself unable to put this one down until the end.  

And then I sat and pondered for a while.  That's the mark of a good book.  It left me a bit sad, happy, and amazed yet again at the talent of some writers.  

This is a dual history novel that takes place New York and on a small plantation  called Bell Creek in Virginia during the years of  1848-1852.  Josephine is a young slave girl who lives in the house and helps Mrs. Bell, who is suffering from a tumor and slowly dying.  She's been unable to have a child survive much past birth--17 children in all.  Mr. Bell is struggling to hang onto the plantation as his profits decrease and he has less slaves to help with the tobacco crops.  

Present day is Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer working her way up the corporate ladder.  Her father is a famous artist, and her mother died suddently when Lina was just a small child.  The loss of her mother has always plagued her, and her father's refusal to talk about her mother has left a huge hole in her life.  Her latest case at work is much different than what she usually has:  a large corporation is suing the US government and other large companies for all the pain, suffering, and lack of wages slaves endured for the 200 years slavery was legal in some States.  This has the potential to be huge--and Lina has to find someone who could be a direct descendant of slaves who can testify.  

Enter in the famous LuAnne Bell paintings.  LuAnne is the mistress that Josephine took care of, and most people have no idea that Josephine was the real artist--but there are rumblings in the art world that LuAnne's paintings are done by Josephine, and it is causing trouble.  And how to prove it?

You would think it would be hard to mesh these two worlds together into a coherent storyline, but Tara Conklin does it quite well.  It does start out a bit slow on Lina's end, but it quickly gathers steam and I was completely engaged and unable to stop reading.  Both stories do not necessarily have happy endings, but endings that make sense.  Some questions are answered, some are not.  Lina's search for a descendent of Josephine quickly becomes a major plot point, and a major change for Lina's outlook on her job and her life--and her quest to know what happened to her mother.  Her father's art world provides a smooth transition for Lina into art galleries and a talk with an art historian who firmly believes Josephine is the true artist of the Bell paintings.  

And Josephine.  Oh, Josephine.  You really feel for her.  Her story is told through letters, paintings, sketches, and her own words.  You will find her character stands out in your mind long after you've put this novel down.

I think this would make an excellent book club selection.  Anyone like me who loves to read about the Old South will certainly want to pick this up.  Fans of The Rebel Wife, The Kitchen House, and The Healer should not hesitate!

Rating:  8/10, great plot; characters that tell their story well, and a very clever idea for a story.  
Available this month in Hardcover and e-book.

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