Tag Archives: Tara Conklin

Book Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).

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            Tara Conklin knows how to open a story.  “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl.  Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does.  “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows.  The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all.  And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed.  Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.

When was the last time you read a story like that?  A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist?  Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.

The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.

In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm.  She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves.  Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.

In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia.  At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation.  Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away.  Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North.  She seeks only to be her own mistress.

These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead.  The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves.  Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases.  Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.

You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story.  Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff.  The question is: what happened to Josephine?  Did she escape?  Did she have any children?

Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive.  There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.

Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life.  Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history.  Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration.  The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.

The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel.  Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance.  The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely.  Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible.  Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.

Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations.  Who should be compensated?  Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?

Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina.  It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go.  You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page.  Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

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Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction

How about a new book for your Valentine?

They say February is for lovers; I say it’s for lots of new books.  There is sure to be something for everyone this month.

Available January 31 is Dina Nayeri’s A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea.

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Growing up in a small rice-farming village in 1980s Iran, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi and her twin sister, Mahtab, are captivated by America. They keep lists of English words and collect illegal Life magazines, television shows, and rock music. So when her mother and sister disappear, leaving Saba and her father alone in Iran, Saba is certain that they have moved to America without her. But her parents have taught her that “all fate is written in the blood,” and that twins will live the same life, even if separated by land and sea. As she grows up in the warmth and community of her local village, falls in and out of love, and struggles with the limited possibilities in post-revolutionary Iran, Saba envisions that there is another way for her story to unfold. Somewhere, it must be that her sister is living the Western version of this life. And where Saba’s world has all the grit and brutality of real life under the new Islamic regime, her sister’s experience gives her a freedom and control that Saba can only dream of.

Filled with a colorful cast of characters and presented in a bewitching voice that mingles the rhythms of Eastern storytelling with modern Western prose, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a tale about memory and the importance of controlling one’s own fate.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day is All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani, which will be released February 5.

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It’s been fifty years since Antonio Grasso married Maddalena and brought her to America. That was the last time she would ever see her parents, her sisters and brothers—everything she knew and loved in the village of Santa Cecilia, Italy. She locked those memories away, as if Santa Cecilia stopped existing the very day she left. Now, with children and grandchildren of her own, a successful family-run restaurant, and enough daily drama at home, Maddalena sees no need to open the door to the past and let the emotional baggage and unmended rifts of another life spill out. 

But Prima, Antonio and Maddalena’s American-born daughter, was raised on the lore of the Old Country. And as she sees her parents aging, she hatches the idea to take the entire family back to Italy—hoping to reunite Maddalena with her estranged sister and let her parents see their homeland one last time. It is an idea that threatens to tear the Grasso family apart, until fate deals them some unwelcome surprises and their journey home becomes a necessary voyage.

Writing with warmth and grace, Chris Castellani delivers a seductive feast for readers. Beautiful Country is an incandescent novel about sacrifice and hope, loss and love, myth and memory.

Soho will publish a rather intriguing story on February 5.  It’s Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell.

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Say you’re a time traveler and you’ve already toured the entirety of human history. After a while, the outside world might lose a little of its luster. That’s why this time traveler celebrates his birthday partying with himself. Every year, he travels to an abandoned hotel in New York City in 2071, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and drinks twelve-year-old Scotch (lots of it) with all the other versions of who he has been and who he will be. Sure, the party is the same year after year, but at least it’s one party where he can really, well, be himself.

The year he turns 39, though, the party takes a stressful turn for the worse. Before he even makes it into the grand ballroom for a drink he encounters the body of his forty-year-old self, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. As the older versions of himself at the party point out, the onus is on him to figure out what went wrong–he has one year to stop himself from being murdered, or they’re all goners. As he follows clues that he may or may not have willingly left for himself, he discovers rampant paranoia and suspicion among his younger selves, and a frightening conspiracy among the Elders. Most complicated of all is a haunting woman possibly named Lily who turns up at the party this year, the first person besides himself he’s ever seen at the party. For the first time, he has something to lose. Here’s hoping he can save some version of his own life.

The author of one of my favorite books, Ron Currie Jr., has a new novel out on February 7.  It is called Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and sounds as charmingly quirky as Everything Matters!

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In this tour de force of imagination, Ron Currie asks why literal veracity means more to us than deeper truths, creating yet again a genre-bending novel that will at once dazzle, move, and provoke.

The protagonist of Ron Currie, Jr.’s new novel has a problem­—or rather, several of them. He’s a writer whose latest book was destroyed in a fire. He’s mourning the death of his father, and has been in love with the same woman since grade school, a woman whose beauty and allure is matched only by her talent for eluding him. Worst of all, he’s not even his own man, but rather an amalgam of fact and fiction from Ron Currie’s own life. When Currie the character exiles himself to a small Caribbean island to write a new book about the woman he loves, he eventually decides to fake his death, which turns out to be the best career move he’s ever made. But fame and fortune come with a price, and Currie learns that in a time of twenty-four-hour news cycles, reality TV, and celebrity Twitter feeds, the one thing the world will not forgive is having been told a deeply satisfying lie.

What kind of distinction could, or should, be drawn between Currie the author and Currie the character?  Or between the book you hold in your hands and the novel embedded in it? Whatever the answers, Currie, an inventive writer always eager to test the boundaries of storytelling in provocative ways, has essential things to impart along the way about heartbreak, reality, grief, deceit, human frailty, and blinding love.

Did your book club ooh and ahh over Kathryn Stockett’s The Help?  Boy, do I have the newest book club darling for you then.  Tara Conklin’s The House Girl will be released February 12.  Conklin’s debut is going to be a major bestseller.  I have read the novel and absolutely loved it, so much that I sought out the author for an interview.  Look for my Q&A with Conklin on February 12.  Please see my spotlight post on the book and check back for the interview and my review.

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Julie Kibler’s amazing debut, Calling Me Home, the She Reads February Book Club Selection, also comes out February 12.  This was another story that stole my heart.  I was lucky enough to get to chat with Kibler, and the interview will be posted February 12.  Read more about the story in my spotlight post and check back for the interview and review.

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Also coming February 12 is the much-anticipated second short story collection of Karen Russell called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Russell is the author of the incredible coming of age tale, Swamplandia!, and her first collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  I found she shows such depth and maturity with her newest book.

vampires   A dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest.  A community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends. A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso. When a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment, an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear. And in the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.

Karen Russell is one of today’s most celebrated and vital writers—honored in The New Yorker’s list of the twenty best writers under the age of forty, Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation’s five best writers under the age of thirty-five.  Her wondrous new work displays a young writer of superlative originality and invention coming into the full range and scale of her powers.

Julianna Baggott’s second novel in her Pure trilogy, Fuse, will be published by Grand Central on February 19 and is sure to set the YA world on fire.

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When the world ended, those who dwelled within the Dome were safe. Inside their glass world the Pures live on unscarred, while those outside—the Wretches—struggle to survive amidst the smoke and ash.

Believing his mother was living among the Wretches, Partridge escaped from the Dome to find her. Determined to regain control over his son, Willux, the leader of the Pures, unleashes a violent new attack on the Wretches. It’s up to Pressia Belze, a young woman with her own mysterious past, to decode a set of cryptic clues from the past to set the Wretches free. 

An epic quest that sweeps readers into a world of beautiful brutality, Fuse continues the story of two people fighting to save their futures—and change the fate of the world.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski comes out February 26.  She Reads chose this for their March Book Club Selection and what a great choice it is!  Leganski may have been born in Wisconsin, but she’s Southern at heart.  Read her debut and you’ll see what I mean.

A lyrical debut novel set in historic New Orleans that follows a mute boy whose gift of magical hearing reveals family secrets and forgotten voodoo lore, and exposes a murder that threatens the souls of those who love him.

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February 26 also marks the publication date for Mimi by Lucy Ellmann.

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It’s Christmas Eve in Manhattan. Harrison Hanafan, noted plastic surgeon, falls on his ass. ‘Ya can’t sit there all day, buddy, looking up people’s skirts!’ chides a weird gal in a coat like a duvet. She then kindly conjures the miracle of a taxi. While recuperating with Franz Schubert, Bette Davis, and a foundling cat, Harrison adds items to his life’s work, a List of Melancholy Things (puppetry, shrimp-eating contests, Walmart…) before going back to rhinoplasties, liposuction, and the peccadilloes of his obnoxious colleagues. Then Harrison collides once more with the strangely helpful woman, Mimi, who bursts into his life with all her curves and chaos. They soon fall emphatically in love. And, as their love-making reaches a whole new kind of climax, the sweet smell of revolution is in the air. By turns celebratory and scathing, romantic and dyspeptic, Mimi is a story of music, New York, sculpture, martinis, public speaking, quilt-stealing, eggnog and, most of all, love. A vibrant call-to-arms, this is Lucy Ellmann’s most extraordinary book to date.

Alex George’s brilliant debut A Good American will be available in paperback on February 5.  I highly recommend George’s story of immigration, love, and family.  You can read my review here.

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Chocolate?  Who needs chocolate?  Open up a new book and have a taste you can truly savor.  The best part?  You don’t have to worry about the book ending up on your hips tomorrow.

I guess February really is for lovers–book lovers, that is.

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Filed under books, fiction, literary fiction, mystery, She Reads, short story collection, Southern fiction, Southern writers, women's lit, young adult

Spotlight on The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Two remarkable women, separated by more than a century, whose lives unexpectedly intertwine…

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2004: Lina Sparrow, the daughter of an artist, is an ambitious young lawyer working on a historic class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

1852: Josephine is a seventeen-year-old house slave who tends to the mistress of a Virginia tobacco farm–an aspiring artist named Lu Anne Bell, whose paintings will become the subject of speculation and controversy among future collectors.

Lina’s search to find a plaintiff for her case will introduce her to the story of Josephine.  Was she the real talent behind her mistress’s now-famous portraits?  It is a question that will take Lina from the corridors of a modern corporate law firm to the sleek galleries of the New York City art world to the crumbling remains of an old plantation house.  Along the way, Lina will unearth long-buried truths about Josephine and about herself…and just maybe achieve long-overdue justice.

Tara Conklin’s brilliant debut novel, The House Girl, will be released February 12.  Conklin captivated me with this tale of two strong, determined women.  I love this story and will be interviewing Conklin.  Book clubs will go crazy for this novel.  The House Girl is going to be bigger than Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

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I am so proud to spotlight the book on my blog and I highly recommend this one!  It’s already getting a lot of well-deserved buzz.

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