Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book 11: The House Girl

Another book, another disappointment?  I seem to be on a roll.  I compared my Goodreads ratings for this year to one's from last year, and eleven books in, I already had four 4 star ratings, and one 5 star, with only one 2 star.  This year, I already have a 1 star and a 2 star, and even my two 4 star ratings involved an initial debate of 3 or 4.  I realize that I was on a really good streak last year but why am I on such an average one now?  I thought I knew how to pick books by now that I might enjoy!  Of course, it doesn't help when even authors I enjoy have slightly weaker or even disappointing offerings.
This is a another novel set up with the two timeline style that seems to be popular, especially for historical fiction.  In this case, the past is 1852, and focuses on Josephine, a seventeen year old house slave at the Bell estate, who decides to run.  The modern day piece follows Carolina "Lina" Sparrow, first year associate at a corporate law firm in New York.  Her mother is dead, and her father is an artist that has finally found success.  After 20 years of not talking about her mother, her father is finally ready to discuss her with Lina and his latest show focuses entirely on portrayals of her mother Grace.  At this same time, she gets a huge case focusing on slavery and reparations - their client runs a large business and his connections tell him the government is ready to issue an apology, so he wants to capitalize on this opportunity.  Given her connection to the art world, Lina hears about Josephine Bell and Lu Ann Bell - after years of lauding Lu Ann as a great artist that captured the reality of slavery with portraits of plantation life, experts have started to believe that it was Josephine's hand behind the brush rather than Mistress Bell's.
So far, so good.  Given that the case and the mother issues came up at the same time, I expected the novel to find a connection between Josephine and Lina, and for it to turn out that her mother is a descendant of Josephine.  While predictable, I would have had no issue with this development, and enjoyed the way the threads connected.  However, this isn't were the novel went, so while I initially liked Lina, her story was quickly dragged down by too many plot points.  Josephine's story was engaging, but it quickly got drowned out with all of Lina's issues.  Basically, I don't think the two plot lines worked together.  Lina is in charge of finding a plaintiff to put a face to the victims of slavery, and while she quickly sees how Josephine and misidentified art would be a great angle, her intense focus on this one aspect basically makes her look like an incompetent lawyer.  If the case had been about ownership of the art rather than slave reparations, her intense focus on Josephine to the exclusion of everything and every one else would have made sense.  If there was a connection between Josephine and Lina through her mother, I would have believed it.  Instead, she is obsessed with finding a descendant that may not exist.  Early in the novel, she meets a man, Jasper, who believes he is in the possession of Josephine's work, passed down as a family heirloom, so Lina's goal is to find the connection between Jasper and Josephine except that Jasper doesn't identify as black, and has tatoos and piercings.  None of these are a problem but when you are looking for the poster child for the past victims of slavery, that's not exactly going to be what people are going to expect.  Have you heard of the media, Lina?  You might want to make a statement about "post-racial" America but it won't work in a case about reparations for slavery!  Basically, Lina's blindness to the fact that Jasper isn't the perfect plaintiff she's looking for (or even close to a good one) made her seem like an incompetent idiot.  She may be good at research, but common sense?  Sorely lacking.
As I said, I enjoyed Josephine and her story, but the novel got bogged down by Lina.  A large part of the gap is closed with a letter that explains everything that happens, and while it was nice to get that narrative closure, I would have preferred it if those chapters had continued to be told from Josephine's perspective.  Instead of discovering a document that spells everything out for Lina, I would have preferred if Lina just had the bare bones so that I as the reader could have continued to hear more of Josephine's voice.  I think I'm just frustrated because the novel started out promising before it irritated me, and since Lina's mother didn't tie into the Josephine part of the story, that whole plot point just seemed like a waste of time.  The cover is pretty gorgeous, though.


Kelly of ReadLately.com said...

I really loved Josephine's voice - I thought the writing in those sections was amazing. I agree with you Lina narrative took away from it a little bit, but that didn't bother me as much. I also wrote a review of this one (you can look it up on my blog, ReadLately) and it's really crazy how much our opinions differ! Mostly because of the writing but also because of the themes brought out, I really loved The House Girl.

Jen K said...

I think your review does a very good job on focusing on what was right about the novel - Josephine! I think I sometimes am better at writing about what I'm frustrated with than doing justice to what I liked. And I think one of the reasons I was disappointed is because I actually really enjoyed Lina's first few chapters.
Did you read The Kitchen House? Something about the mood in this one reminded me of it, though The Kitchen House was even more frustrating to me because of the main character's actions in the second half.

RC OLeary said...

You are a reading machine. Could I recommend a book I wrote (shameless self-plug but as an independent author I'm the PR department, too) it's a legal thriller set in Atlanta and I've received a lot of good feedback.

If you're a kindle reader and send me your email to rcowriting at gmail I would be delighted to send you a complimentary copy of the book.

Thanks for any consideration you might provide.

The title is Hallways in the Night.

You can also see the first 3 chapter sample at my blog.


Rebecca Scaglione said...

I liked this one a lot more than you did, but I do agree that Lina's storyline was a little weak.