Book Review: The House Girl

For our July read, my book club tackled The House Girl by Tara Conklin. Some of our members were out of the country and we were unable to meet in person, which is why my review is so delayed. But we are caught up on our book club reads now. I am posting my review for our August read, Hausfrau, by tomorrow. Every member gets to pick a book for a month and we rotate selections. The House Girl was actually my pick for the book club. So I was really excited to dive into it and see if my pick was actually good. Some more details about the book are below:

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Paperback

Publisher: Harper Collins

Publishing Year: 2013

2015 Reading Challenge: A book by a female author

The novel follows the lives of two characters from two vastly different times; 17 year-old Josephine Bell, a house slave who lives at a tobacco farm called Bell Creek in Virginia in the year 1852, and Carolina (Lina) Sparrow, a first-year associate at an elite law firm in New York City, 2004. The book goes back and forth between both characters fairly frequently.

Josephine’s storyline follows her life at Bell Creek, including caring for her ailing mistress, Lu Anne Bell, painting landscapes and portraits (she actually was encouraged to paint by Mistress Lu), and dreaming of running far away.

While Lina Sparrow’s story follows the process she takes after she is given a difficult case, a historic class-action lawsuit to award trillions of dollars in reparations to the descendants of American slaves. This case could make or break her career. Her job is to find a plaintiff who can lead the lawsuit in court and in front of the media.  When trying to locate a plaintiff, Lina discovers Josephine Bell, whose name is currently embroiled in a controversy. A set of paintings long thought to be the work of Lu Anne Bell, may actually be the work of her house slave, Josephine. Lina believes that one of Josephine’s descendants would be a perfect plaintiff for her case, if she can find one. At the same time, Lina is uncovering family secrets, specifically the death of her mother. These mysteries envelop Lina’s life, leading her to discover things about herself and what she wants out of life.

I felt that the story was a bit slow at the beginning, but once the two characters connect (Lina discovers Josephine Bell), then it really starts getting interesting. Also I am a sucker for historical fiction. Lina discovers these letters and old plantation records belonging to others who helped or knew Josephine, and I really loved reading those sections. There is something about personal letters (even though they are fiction) that really gets me sucked in. You discover so many things about that person’s personality and life during that time.

I feel like this book would be perfect as a movie, they may have to change the storyline around a bit, but it has that movie quality to it. First off, the writing was amazing. For a first time author, Conklin paints a beautiful narrative. Plus the storyline is an interesting concept, two characters from different times, two completely different lives, and they find this connection (well specifically Lina finds a connection).

The story reminded me of the movie Woman in Gold that was released recently, which starred Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren. Although Woman in Gold was about an art restitution case involving several Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II and its based on a real life story, I felt it was very similar to the slavery reparations case depicted in this novel.

(L-R) HELEN MIRREN and RYAN REYNOLDS star in WOMAN IN GOLD

(L-R) HELEN MIRREN and RYAN REYNOLDS star in WOMAN IN GOLD

Both stories flashback to the past, and depict some form of wrongdoing that occurred in history, merging both past and present. Also both show the struggle of the characters to break down the social norms and structures in place that perpetuate that wrongdoing. In the Woman in Gold, it is the Austrian government; in The House Girl, it is the Stanmore foundation which owns Bell Creek in 2004.

“There’s been a lot of dishonesty around here. There are so many people upset about this, about losing Lu Anne. Or not losing her, but oh it’s hard to put into words. Losing the idea of her. Do you know what I mean? It’s just heartbreaking.” – The House Girl by Tara Conklin.

I’m sure Conklin purposely did this, but even though Lina and Josephine are so different, you are able to find similarities. Lina is white and a successful junior associate in New York City. Whereas Josephine is black and forced to live as a house slave. However just like Josephine, Lina is trapped but in a different way. She still lives with her father, Oscar, and is very much focused on her career. Even though she is doing well career-wise, she seems to be unhappy, and unable to build meaningful relationships.

Eventually she begins to realize what she wants in life, opens her eyes to several family secrets, and breaks away from her “chains” to find her own sense of freedom. Its obviously not as terrible as being a house slave in 1852, but Conklin keeps these themes of freedom and enslavement constant throughout the book. Even the secondary characters display aspects of freedom and what it means to be free. I don’t want to delve too much into the stories of the secondary characters because I may reveal spoilers, so I will just leave it there.

“Freedom was a curious thing. Were the chickens free, running their fool heads off in the yard? The horse, that still must fit the bit between its teeth? Was Missus free? But what else to dream for?…Just to sit for a moment, herself, no one claiming her time or her thoughts or the product of her mind and hands. What word to call that if not freedom? ‘Not a one is free,’ Nathan had said, but Josephine did not believe that could be true.” – The House Girl by Tara Conklin.

“He spoke on the universal sanctity of life, how the taking of life regardless of the station of the person will always be viewed as a sin before God, that all men yearn for life and its natural corollary, freedom. His words flowed from him as I had never seen before. Jesus died for us all, the Pastor said and it is not the privilege of men to pick and choose whose life may be considered sacred before the Lord.” – Letter from Dorothea to Kate, The House Girl by Tara Conklin.

I’m not sure whether I liked the character of Lina. It was odd because even though Lina is depicted as a successful junior lawyer at a reputable New York City law firm, there is still a naivete to her, which angered me at times. Whereas the younger Josephine seemed to me wise beyond her years.

One of my good friends and book club members is actually in law school and she gave me the rundown on this case, and basically said that this case would never fly in the real world. So in terms of the lawsuit, it’s not very realistic, but our book club didn’t seem to have a problem with that fact. We gave this read a 4 out of 5. We all agreed that this was an enjoyable read and were very surprised that this is Conklin’s first novel. For a first time author she did a phenomenal job with this book.

One last comment: I don’t want to give anything away, but there may be hints below, so please do not read ahead if you do not want any spoilers.

I’ll be honest, I was not happy with the ending for both Josephine and Lina. I understand why the ending had to happen and its not a terrible ending for either character. But as a reader I didn’t feel satisfied at the end. I really enjoyed the read, but I don’t know whether I would read it again because of the ending.

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