Thursday, March 6, 2014

Tara Conklin's The House Girl - A Very Good Read

In my line of literary work (oh, wait, the blog is unpaid), I get a lot of recommendations.  I get them from friends, people I meet at Recycle Bookstore, other bloggers, and LinkedIn book group members.  Most of the time, I pass.  It's not that I don't want to read new authors, it's just that I've got my own priority list (and a TBR pile currently at 36 - I'm not making that number up).  BUT, when Rich and Leslie (or Donna and Phil, in the case of Me Before You by JoJo Moyes) both insist, I squeeze their recommendation into, and at the top of, the pile.  That is what happened here.  They both (good-naturedly) insisted that I read Tara Conklin's debut novel, The House Girl.  And so I did.

Normally I give a rating at the end of my post.  This time, I'm telling you right up front that The House Girl gets a 3.5.  The only reason it didn't get a 4 is that it's a bit literary at times.  You all know that I'm a bit of a troglodyte when it comes to prose.  I like a well-written book, but I want it to flow so I don't have to concentrate too much (this is similar to the 3.5 I gave Tracy Guzeman's The Gravity of Birds).  This one has wordy moments. But it's still a 3.5 because it's such a well-conceived, well-written (reparations lawsuit in 2004 for the economic effects of slavery? wow, that's creative), well-carried out story.  Let Goodreads tell you what it's about.

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.

Pretty interesting, right?  I liked the fact that not only does the story go back and forth between 1852 and 2004; and not only does the story alternate between a female house slave in Virginia and a female lawyer (1st year) in New York City; but it also brings in the art world scene, disputed authorship of a bunch of paintings and drawings from the mid 1800's, and a very accomplished artist who is Lina's father.  That's a lot of stuff happening, and Tara does a great job of developing all of the various story lines without giving any of them too much or too little attention.

I like when something happens and I have a spontaneous physical reaction.  It could be a nod of the head, or an exclamation (use your imagination), a smile, a gasp, or a hmmm. The head nod came in this book (page 110).  And there were other moments that I appreciated.  The fact that Lina keeps track on time spent with people in billable hours, even when she's not on the clock.  Or when the author has a non-central character write a series of letters that take up about 40 pages (out of 370) that are very illuminating to the plot.  Or even when the author gives us reasons to question the authenticity of certain artwork.

The House Girl is unique and very well put together.  I will certainly be waiting for Tara Conklin's next book.  She's got a new fan.

POSSIBLE VHOB BOOK CLUB DEVELOPMENT:  I have had emails with Tara about the possibility of appearing at one of our VHOB Book Club meetings via Skype.  I prefer a live appearance, but she lives in the Seattle area.


  1. I lovethis cover so much. Glad you liked it so much :)

  2. Pretty tough not to like. And you're right about the cover.