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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The House Girl An Absorbing, Affecting Debut

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Using professionally-written book summaries instead of composing my own (admittedly sub-standard) versions always makes me feel like a lazy bum.  You're just going to have to trust me on this one, though, because I simply could not have created a better, more compelling synopsis of The House Girl by Tara Conklin than this one:
Lina Sparrow is a first-year associate at a lucrative Manhattan law firm who is given the difficult task of finding the perfect plaintiff to lead an historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves. An unexpected lead comes from her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, who tells her of a controversy currently rocking the art world. Experts now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of slaves on her pre-Civil War plantation, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. Lina knows that a descendant of Josephine's would be the perfect lead plaintiff for the lawsuit—if she is able to find one. But nothing seems to be known of Josephine's fate following the death of Lu Anne Bell in 1852. Searching for clues in historical archives, old letters, and plantation records, Lina slowly begins to piece together Josephine's story—a journey that leads her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother's mysterious death twenty years earlier. 

Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, and told through the very different eyes of Lina and the seventeen-year-old house girl Josephine, this is a searing tale of art and history, love and secrets. From the brutality of plantation life to the perils of the Underground Railroad, and from the corridors of a modern corporate law firm to the sleek galleries of the New York art world, The House Girl explores what it means to repair a wrong while asking whether the truth is sometimes more important than justice.*
I know, right?  It's beautiful and perfectly captures the essence of Conklin's stirring debut novel.

As you can see, The House Girl promises a lot—an intriguing historical tale, an absorbing mystery (or two), a rousing adventure, and a powerful journey of self-discovery.  Ambitious aims, to be sure, but you know what?  The book delivers all of that and more.  Both of its heroines are fascinating women with complex personalities and engrossing back stories.  Their tales are woven together with care, creating plenty of suspense to keep readers turning pages.  Conklin's prose sometimes feels austere, but overall, it's appropriate to the novel's tone and lovely in a way that's both precise and arresting.  While the story gets a little predictable, it's still makes for an affecting read—one I highly recommend.        

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Cutting Season by Attica Locke)

Grade:  B

If this were a movie, it would be rated:  R for strong language (a few F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence and mild sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The House Girl from the generous folks at Harper Collins.  Thank you!

*Plot summary from promotional materials written by Ben Bruton, Senior Director of Publicity at Harper Collins.


  1. This book sounds very intriguing. Civil War, the South, a mystery! Right up my alley. :-)


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