I’m not sure what sparked my initial interest in The House Girl. I suppose it could have been the slavery aspect since that topic still seems so entrenched in taboo. Or perhaps I was merely pulled in by the gorgeous green cover. I’m a total sucker for anything green after all. And now that I’ve finished the novel, I’m honestly having a hard time deciding how I feel about it.
Tara Conklin’s debut novel intertwines the stories of two young women – Carolina (Lina) Sparrow, a corporate lawyer in NYC assigned to an ambitious slavery reparations case and Josephine Bell, a slave and house girl to the Bell family, desperate to escape. Their worlds collide when Lina begins her search for a plaintiff in the reparations case and discovers a controversy surrounding some art supposedly created by Josephine’s Masters’s wife, Lu Ann Bell. All these years later, experts are beginning to believe that Lu Ann was not the artist, but rather it was Josephine’s expert hand that brought about these valuable masterpieces. As Lina begins to research further into Josephine’s past, Josephine herself plots a daring escape from her imprisonment.
I think what has me so bothered is that I wanted more of Josephine’s story and less of Lina’s. I loved hearing Josephine’s story firsthand, through her own voice and hated when the novel nearly dropped her narrative from the story all together about half-way in. What’s strange about this and has me even more conflicted is that I honestly believe Lina’s voice was written better, cleaner, and much more well-edited, but the heart just wasn’t there for me. Her slog of a back story about her mother was pointless in my opinion and took attention from the far more tragic tale of humans believing they could own other humans. Plus, the constant updates on how many billable hours she had just spent researching got tedious and didn’t help the plot progression whatsoever. The love story felt hastily thrown together, an added extra with no meat. And then there’s the fact that Lina’s search for Josephine fell together far too quickly and easily.
But like I said, Lina’s voice rings genuine and the writing is sharp. I suppose this has a lot to do with Conklin’s own past as a lawyer. You could also really feel Conklin’s love of art and history shining through this historical fiction narrative which added a little something extra that I very much enjoyed. What I loved most, however, was Josephine’s struggle, the way her life had shaped her art and her thoughts. Her story was never too easy, but was always engrossing. She’s the character you root for in The House Girl – the one that truly matters. I just wish that Conklin had quit with the flowery descriptions which didn’t fit her writing style. I got annoyed at some repetitive adjectives or redundant statements such as ‘verdant green’. For some reason, this only happened during Josephine’s sections or at least were only noticeable during the 1852 timeline.
It took me longer than normal to read The House Girl. I think this was partially due to the uneasy flow and narrative shifts. The first half is told in switching narration as mentioned earlier, but the latter half is quickly taken over by an epistolary section that felt oddly misplaced, utterly halting my progression and removing me from the novel’s gripping plot.
So, for me anyway, The House Girl was a mixed bag. Highs and lows, but a decent debut novel. I can see that Conklin has some talent and I look forward to seeing how her writing improves. I’ve also read some lovely reviews from readers who adored this story so I earnestly beseech you to make up your own mind. If you are a die-hard historical fiction fan, I think you’ll find a story worth reading here and even if not, Josephine is a character well worth anyone’s time.
I’m also pleased to announce that I’m giving away one free copy of The House Girl to a lucky reader! Just enter by filling out this form by February 18th. I’ll announce the winner on February 19th. Contest is open to US/Canada residents only!
Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me the book in exchange for my honest review. I love discovering new authors especially, so debuts are always a treat. You can check out the remaining tour stops right here!
Tara Conklin has worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a major corporate law firm but now devotes her time to writing fiction. She received a BA in history from Yale University, a JD from New York University School of Law, and a Master of Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School (Tufts University). Tara Conklin’s short fiction has appeared in the Bristol Prize Anthology andPangea: An Anthology of Stories from Around the Globe. Born in St. Croix, she grew up in Massachusetts and now lives with her family in Seattle, Washington.