One of my absolute favorite ways to discover a book is through a recommendation. Even if I hate the book, even if I hated reading it, I still love talking about books and it’s kind of fascinating trying to figure out what this friend or acquaintance or family member may have seen in this book that compelled them to pass it along.
Anyway, I finished book #78 tonight (I need to read so much faster, ah) tonight and it was a great recommendation. I read The House Girl by Tara Conklin; I feel a little bit behind because this book’s been out for a while and it was a NYTimes bestseller. Oops.
This book was especially impressive as Conklin has a background in law, and this was her first novel. I foresee a long and successful career as a novelist based on this one book.
So the book is one of those cool, non-linear narratives, switching back and forth mainly between two female characters, with assertions from a few others throughout. There is the young present-day lawyer named Carolina (Lina for short) living and working (hard) in Manhattan; then there is the house girl Josephine, surviving as a slave in the 1850’s in rural Virginia.
Early on in the novel, it becomes clear that these two stories are linked when Lina’s law firm decides to take on a massive reparations case suing the government for slavery, essentially. I’m probably missing a bunch of legal jargon, but you know what I mean.
Lina is tasked with finding the perfect plaintiff, a.k.a. the face of the whole lawsuit. This occurs around the same time that a successful artist’s work is called into question; this artist happens to be the woman who Lina served back in her timeline, and there are doubts as to who actually painted/drew the work that earned her her fame.
Thus begins Lina’s quest to find out whether or not Josephine may have an ancestor to serve as the plaintiff while at the same time establishing once and for all Josephine’s artistic skills that her owner shamelessly claimed as her own until the day she died. Two birds with one stone.
I don’t want to give away key parts of the story, but I love books like this, the back and forth always keeps me guessing. I think it’s easy to argue that this has become something of a cliche, and The House Girl definitely isn’t the first book to have done this switching-perspectives-and-timelines-to-link-seemingly-unrelated-narratives thing, but even if it has become a bit of cliche, it’s still effective.
There were also some pretty interesting parallels drawn between Josephine and Lina; Lina takes a very personal and invested stance in the case and the investigation of Josephine’s past and it’s easy to get behind her as you read. I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to discover this book if my roommate hadn’t recommended it, so I’m thankful for good book recommendations and good books.
Although it’s hard to beat an hour or four spent browsing at a bookstore for the perfect new book that you didn’t even know you were looking for. ◊
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? There was no dream of Josephine’s that did not contain a place where she might sit and look upon a field or a bird in flight or a person and ponder the lines of that thing, to capture them in pencil or charcoal or ink or pigment. Just to sit for a moment, herself, no one claiming her time or her thoughts or the product of her mind and hands. What other word to call that if not freedom? Not a one is free, Nathan had said, but Josephine did not believe that could be true.”
– page 186