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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?
Moving between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing, suspenseful and heartbreaking tale of art and history, love and secrets, explores what it means to repair a wrong and asks whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.
How long has it been since I shared a book review? Two months? Three months? I can’t even remember and when I can’t remember all I know is that it’s been too long. I actually finished The House Girl by Tara Conklin at least a month ago but I just never got around to reviewing it. I guess that sort of speaks volumes on its own for how I felt about the book, right?
The thing with The House Girl is that it switched back and forth between two timelines and I found myself only interested in one of them. When Conklin was talking about Josephine Bell back in 1852 I was enthralled. It’s a horrifically sad time in America’s history but Conklin did the era justice with her writing. She acknowledged the abuse suffered by the plantation slaves and she discussed the role of the underground railroad. I enjoyed that she was willing to discuss some harsh truths and I loved getting inside of the mind and heart of Josephine. Josephine (a favorite name of mine, btw!) was so conflicted over her role on the plantation and I hurt for her. She missed being around those she considered family yet she appreciated her role in the home. She both loved and despised the woman she worked for and the doctor that treated her. Overall, she was a delightful character that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Lina on the other hand, was not a character I cared much about. I found her to be whiny, annoying, and pretentious while I am quite certain Conklin meant for her to be vulnerable and relatable. I found myself skimming through her sections trying to get back to Josephine. Lina was a bitch to her father (and I get it…he was emotionally distant…kept secrets…blah blah blah). I would have cared more about her dad keeping secrets except for the fact that he was trying to tell her the truth from the very beginning of the book and she just kept saying she “wasn’t ready” to hear it. Sorry Lina but you can’t say you’re “not ready” and still be upset someone doesn’t tell you something. That’s just lame.
As for the two big reveals at the end of The House Girl, they were so predictable. There was one reveal for Josephine’s story and one for Lina’s but it’s too easy to see them both coming. The foreshadowing was overwhelmingly obvious from far too early in the book so by the time it was all revealed to the reader I just sat there like, “It’s about time!!!!”. I’m also going to have a really hard time believing anyone that tells me they didn’t see either of those reveals coming.
Or maybe I’m too critical. That’s possible too.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on “the perfect defendant.” There was nothing “perfect” about him other than Lina had a crush on him and the book needed a love interest. Outside of that he made no sense whatsoever and felt kind of forced in to the story. I think I would have liked it a whole lot more if Conklin would have just told Josephine’s story and not bothered to do a dual timeline thing.
Overall, The House Girl was fine. I loved Josephine’s story but didn’t care for Lina’s. I read it because I love books set during the 1850’s because it was a fascinating (both good and bad) time and there is a lot to learn from our country’s history. There has also been a lot of hype about The House Girl with just about everyone I know having read and enjoyed it.
I’m giving it a solid 3-stars and admittingly I think a lot of people will likely enjoy the book.
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***On second thought***
Because it’s been a month since I finished this book I forgot about that stupidly long letter that randomly shows up at the end of the book. If it takes a 10+ page letter from a character we’ve never met to a character we’ve barely met to fill in all of the plot holes and make the backstory make sense then maybe there’s a problem with the storytelling. I am going to unapologetically say that The House Girl isn’t worth reading and there are much better books out there that are worth your time instead. That letter was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read. It was lazy writing for sure and nothing more than a device to tell the story the author should have been crafting all along. Forget that “solid 3-stars” comment I made earlier, I take it back. I remember why it took me over a month to get around to reviewing it.