2013 · 5 stars · historical fiction

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Title: The House Girl
Author: Tara Conklin
Pub. Date: February 12, 2013
Source: Library
Summary: Virginia, 1852. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Bell decides to run from the failing tobacco farm where she is a slave and nurse to her ailing mistress, the aspiring artist Lu Anne Bell. New York City, 2004. Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that could make her career: she must find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves.

It is through her father, the renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, that Lina discovers Josephine Bell and a controversy roiling the art world: are the iconic paintings long ascribed to Lu Anne Bell really the work of her house slave, Josephine? A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the reparations lawsuit—if Lina can find one. While following the runaway girl’s faint trail through old letters and plantation records, Lina finds herself questioning her own family history and the secrets that her father has never revealed: How did Lina’s mother die? And why will he never speak about her?
Genre: Historical Fiction

Goodreads’ Awards broke me. I have NO discipline whatsoever when it comes to the library – I can usually tell ahead of time what my reading schedule looks like for the week and what reviews need to be written, so I tend to know what wiggle room I have for library books. More often than not, I grab ALL THE BOOKS and wind up taking the majority back unread because I borrowed too many. When the voting was open, I basically used to nominees as my own personal recommendations: there were so many wonderful books I had missed out on this year! I immediately requested a handful from my library and The House Girl was at the top of my stack.

Have you ever come across a book that felt as though the author wrote it with you in mind? That this book was written for you? The House Girl was that book for me. It featured so many of my favorite things in novels: dual narratives, different eras, ART!

Alternating between the present day (2004) and the 1850s, The House Girl tells the tale of Josephine Bell, a slave whose artwork had been credited to her mistress, Lu Anne Bell. Lina Sparrow is a young lawyer hoping to work her way up through the ranks. Long hours and a good track record have won her the approval of her boss, but she’s looking for that one case that’ll make her career. That case comes in the form of a lawsuits seeking reparations for descendants of slaves. Lina’s tasked with finding the ‘perfect plaintiff,’ one person who will able to represent the millions.

As she’s working the case, her research brings her to Josephine’s story and she soon finds herself immersed in this young woman’s life – and the night she made the decision to run.

I absolutely loved The House Girl. While reading I couldn’t help but compare it to two other books I equally adored: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (while the stories were different, both books dealt with dual narratives/timelines and art) and The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (for the art obvs). Both books rank among my favorites – The Art Forger was one of my top reads of 2012! – and have been recommended multiple times over. I can easily see The House Girl following suit. Already I’ve told numerous people about it and can’t wait for more people to read this wonderful book.

While I am a huge fan of dual narratives, I tend to prefer one storyline over the other and that holds true with The House Girl. I was so caught up in Josephine’s story that I found myself quickly reading Lina’s chapters in order to get back to the 1800s. That’s not to say Lina was any less interesting! I enjoyed her story, but I never found myself as invested in her relationship with her father/dealing with her mother’s absence as I was in Josephine’s life. My favorite parts of Lina’s chapters were the scenes that dealt with the case – and therefore, Josephine.

The insight into Josephine’s world: her ache for freedom, the whippings that were just another part of life, the realization that her son was alive, were heartbreaking and I couldn’t tear myself away. The House Girl is a dangerous book in that I could only read it at home when I was able to devote large blocks of time to reading. This definitely is not the type of novel that can be read in small doses, a chapter here and there. The moment I finished one chapter I needed to keep reading.

The ending played out different than I had hoped – particularly Lina’s story – but it didn’t detract from the rest of the novel. Don’t be surprised if The House Girl makes an appearance on my Top Reads of 2013 list!


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