Monday, March 4, 2013

Review: The House Girl

Summary: Two remarkable women, separated by more than a century, whose lives unexpectedly intertwine . . . 

2004: Lina Sparrow is an ambitious young lawyer working on a historic class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

1852: Josephine is a seventeen-year-old house slave who tends to the mistress of a Virginia tobacco farm—an aspiring artist named Lu Anne Bell. 

It is through her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, that Lina discovers a controversy rocking the art world: art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of the slaves who worked her Virginia tobacco farm, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. 

A descendant of Josephine's would be the perfect face for the lawsuit—if Lina can find one. But nothing is known about Josephine's fate following Lu Anne Bell's death in 1852. In piecing together Josephine's story, Lina embarks on a journey that will lead her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother's mysterious death twenty years before. 

Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and asks whether truth can be more important than justice. -- William Morrow

When I first read the description for THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin , I thought it sounded fantastic. I love books that go back and forth between the present and the past, and I've always been fascinated with novels about slavery and the South. My expectations for this book were pretty high... maybe unfairly so.

THE HOUSE GIRL tells the story of two women -- Lina, a young lawyer who is working on a class action lawsuit seeking reparations for descendants of slaves and Josephine, a house slave who tended to aspiring artist Lu Anne Belle. Their two stories come together when Lina was trying to find the "perfect face" for her lawsuit. Lina learned that art historians suspect that Lu Anne Bell's portraits were actually painted by Josephine, and who better than to represent her class action suit than a descendant of Josephine's?

Little is known about Josephine and virtually nothing is recorded about her life after Lu Anne's death. Lina sets out to discover the truth about Josephine; and while conducting her research, she also begins to unlock the mysteries about her own past.

Needless to say, THE HOUSE GIRL isn't a traditional mystery, and I debated whether it was appropriate to feature as part of Mystery Mondays. However, I decided that there were enough elements of mystery in this story that I could count it as a mystery. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer review convinced me!) Both Lina and Josephine's stories had unknowns that were eventually revealed to the reader (heck, Josephine's entire life was a mystery), and I can definitely say that I was kept guessing about a few of the story lines.

With THE HOUSE GIRL getting such rave reviews, I expected to absolutely love it. The truth is that I liked it okay, but I certainly didn't love it. I am the first to admit that I was expecting a lot from this novel, but it just didn't totally work for me. Initially, I struggled to get into the novel and Lina's character didn't resonate with me at all. And then, once I felt as if I got to understand and even like Lina, her personal story took some drastic turns, and I'm not sure all of the plot lines were fully explored.

Having said that, there were many positive things about THE HOUSE GIRL, and I'm afraid that my review sounds too critical. I thought the premise of the novel was brilliant and had major potential to be a wonderful story. In addition, I loved the Josephine chapters and I found her story to extremely intriguing -- I have nothing negative to say about any of these parts of the novel. I also thought the author did a terrific job of researching the subject matter and blending fact with fiction. It was apparent to me that she did her research on both slavery and the South and her expertise as a lawyer came through in Lina's character.

However, I think the author just tried to do too much in one novel. I don't want to give too much away, but Lina's personal issues with her mother's death and her current relationship with her father were extremely complicated and I'm not sure they were explored as much as they could have (or should have) been. As she began to uncover the secrets about her mom, the pace of the novel definitely picked up... but maybe it was a little too fast?

There is no doubt given my feelings about the story lines and the presentation that THE HOUSE GIRL would make an interesting book club selection. There is a reading guide available with twelve thought-provoking questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore are the symbolism of the title, slavery, freedom, obligation, family dynamics, secrets, forgiveness, friendship, betrayal, and atonement. I also think it would be interesting to compare and contrast Lina and Josephine's characters.

Overall, I can say that I liked many things about THE HOUSE GIRL, but I think I just wanted something more from this story and the characters. However, I am definitely in the minority given all of the wonderful reviews out there!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.


Beth F said...

I've been on the fence about reading this one. After reading your review, I'm even less enthusiastic about picking it up.

bermudaonion said...

I've been reading mixed reviews of this book and will probably skip it since historical fiction is not my thing.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I didn't love it either!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I was going to pipe up and tell you that Jill had some issues with this book, ones that seemed pretty valid. I guess if I ever do pick it up, I will at least have my expectations in check. But I'm not the hugest fan of historical fiction like Kathy, so unless it hurls itself at me, I might just pass.

Alison Skap said...

I have seen several reviews for The House Girl, and something about it isn't calling to me. Thank you for your honest review!

Serena said...

I'm with you on this one. I really wanted something more from this one. I wanted more from Lina's story -- something more cohesive. Josephine's story could have been it's own satisfying novel for me.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Looking forward to The House Girl myself. I didn't think it had a touch of mystery to it. Thanks for sharing Julie.