Reviews for House Girl


Booklist Reviews 2013 February #1
Conklin persuasively intertwines the stories of two women separated by time and circumstances but united by a quest for justice. When law associate Lena Sparrow is handed a plum assignment--to find the perfect poster child for a class-action suit on behalf of the descendants of American slaves--she has little appreciation for how radically the task will change the course of her own life and destiny. As she searches for a descendant of Josephine Bell, a house girl rumored to have been the actual artist of a series of stunning paintings credited to her white mistress, she peels away layers of both Josephine's past and her own complacency. Retracing Josephine's often-elusive path, she uncovers some troubling facts about her parents and the startling lie that formed the basis of her childhood and young adulthood. Stretching back and forth across time and geography, this riveting tale is bolstered by some powerful universal truths. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

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BookPage Reviews 2013 February
Dreams of freedom that wouldn't die

Tara Conklin didn’t always think of herself as a novelist. Sure, as a kid she always kept a journal and was, as she puts it, “scribbling stories.” And as a corporate attorney living in New York City, she loved her job in part because it included so much writing. But she wasn’t a writer.

“I was still writing just as a hobby,” she says. “It was my dirty little secret—I was a closet writer.”

Conklin spoke with BookPage from her home in Seattle. On the day we spoke, she was busily packing her young family for a trip to London, where her husband is from. Even so, the gracious Conklin spoke passionately about The House Girl, the luminous debut novel she has been writing on and off for several years.

After she started early drafts of the book, Conklin wasn’t quite sure what would become of it.

“I didn’t think I was writing a novel,” she says. “It was just another story but it kept getting longer and longer. There were many times I set it aside. I had two young kids. I didn’t have time to be spending on this pie-in-the-sky dream of writing a novel.”

But she couldn’t get Josephine Bell out of her head—she even had dreams about the character. A teenage house slave on a Virginia tobacco farm, Josephine dreams of freedom and plots an escape to Philadelphia, away from the cruel master who permanently hobbled one slave who tried to run away by slicing his heels.

The House Girl intertwines Josephine’s story with that of Lina Sparrow, a modern-day attorney who is helping with a lawsuit seeking reparations for slavery. Her work leads her to Josephine, who may have been the real artist behind paintings attributed to her mistress.

Conklin's novel toggles between centuries and characters who are searching for love and meaning in their lives.

As Lina dives deeper into her research, she struggles not only to find out what happened to Josephine but also to convey the breadth of slavery’s intergenerational impact—the “nature of the harm,” in lawyer-speak. And Lina has some mysteries in her own past she needs to confront, too, like what happened when her mother disappeared so many years ago.

Conklin played with the story for several years, but it was[Tue Jul 29 09:05:51 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. only after she quit her job in Big Law and moved to Seattle that she decided to commit to being a writer.

“I was sort of done with big cities, and we wanted to think of a good place to live with kids and where I could write,” she says. “It was definitely touch and go for awhile. People thought we were crazy.”

As she got deeper into The House Girl, it wasn’t lost on Conklin that another young white woman—Kathryn Stockett—was getting some pretty significant pushback for writing about black women in 1960s Mississippi in The Help. That was part of the reason Conklin chose to write in the third person and not try to accurately capture the diction of a 19th-century slave.

“When I was writing this, first of all, I never thought anyone would read it. I was just interested in the person,” she says. “Josephine is a character with universal human experience—she is someone who wanted all the same things we all want: freedom and love and meaning in her life.”

At this point, Conklin loses her train of thought and can’t pluck the word she wants off the tip of her tongue.

“Can you tell my baby is teething and I didn’t get much sleep last night?” she laughs.

Though Conklin concedes that writing while parenting can be a challenge, “It’s one of the few careers that really lends itself well to being a parent. It’s not like you have to be in an office. I’m very unprecious about my writing time and space. I can pull the laptop out and write for 20 minutes while the kids play. I can write in a moving car. We have a very strict bedtime of 8 p.m. and then I sit down and write everything I thought about that day.”

The House Girl is the rare novel that seamlessly toggles between centuries and characters and remains consistently gripping throughout. It would appear that thoroughly modern Lina—self-sufficient, unattached—is everything the women in her research are not. But Lina feels a kinship when she reads a letter from a Virginia woman whose family helped slaves escape and run north, a woman who has realized she only wants a simple life full of love and kindness.

“Lina closed the biography. For a moment, Dorothea was present with her in the office, layered in skirts and petticoats, with her convictions and resolve, talking to Lina. Is it too much to wish for such a life? Is it too little? Lina laughed with tears in her eyes because the words written 150 years ago by a young woman she would never meet seemed truer than anything she’d read in her textbooks, anything she’d been told by her law professors. . . .”

Conklin’s debut novel is a quiet book; she never sends Lina breathlessly chasing down leads, and Josephine suffers her heartbreak not with The Color Purple-esque monologues but with unending dignity. But it is that very quietness that makes The House Girl so powerful.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

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BookPage Reviews 2013 August
Your guide to noteworthy debuts of 2013

Is there anything more nerve-racking than publishing a first novel? For authors and publishers alike, it’s a nail-biting moment of sink or swim. Here are 10 debuts from the year (so far!) that signal the start of promising careers.

THE HOUSE GIRL
By Tara Conklin
For fans of: Tracy Chevalier, Kathryn Stockett, Geraldine Brooks
First line: “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.”
About the book: The stories of a runaway slave and a modern-day lawyer intersect in a quiet, emotional and thought-provoking tale.
About the author: Conklin worked as a corporate lawyer before moving to Seattle with her husband and children to write this novel.
Read more: Interview from our February issue.

GHOSTMAN
By Roger Hobbs
For fans of: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dan Brown
First line: “Hector Moreno and Jerome Ribbons sat in the car on the ground level of the Atlantic Regency Hotel Casino parking garage, sucking up crystal meth with a rolled-up five spot, a lighter and a crinkled length of tin foil.”
About the book: This thrilling heist novel is full of nonstop action and includes incredible detail on everything from casino operations to armored cars—as well as an unforgettable, amoral antihero.
About the author: Just 24 years old, Hobbs finished the novel while still attending Reed College in Portland.
Read more: Interview from our February issue.

THE SUPREMES AT EARL'S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT
By Edward Kelsey Moore
For fans of: Maeve Binchy, Terry McMillan, Fannie Flagg
First line: “I woke up hot that morning. Came out of a sound sleep with my face tingling and my nightgown stuck to my body.”
About the book: The 40-year friendship of three women from the small town of Plainview, Indiana, is celebrated in a big-hearted story that’s full of laughs—and inspired by the “smart, and interesting, and not foolish” women in Moore’s own life.
About the author: Moore was an accomplished cellist and college professor when he decided to try writing at the age of 40 (he’s now 52).
Read more: Interview from our March issue.

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA
By Anthony Marra
For fans of: Téa Obreht, Adam Johnson, Jonathan Safran Foer
First line: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.”
About the book: Set against the backdrop of the Chechen Wars, an exhausted doctor fights to protect a young girl whose father has been taken away by Russian soldiers for a crime he didn’t commit.
About the author: Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Marra holds an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has lived in Eastern Europe.
Read more: Review from our May issue.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
By Helene Wecker
For fans of: Susanna Clarke, Deborah Harkness, Michael Chabon
First line: “The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.”
About the book: A golem, a jinni and the evil wizard that links them star in Wecker’s imaginative blend of Jewish and Arabic folklore. The supernatural characters are grounded by the novel’s detailed, vibrant setting in 1899 New York City, where immigrants and wealthy citizens mingle on teeming streets.
About the author: Wecker spent seven years working in the corporate sector before attending Columbia University’s writing program.
Read more: Interview from our May issue.

THE OTHER TYPIST
By Suzanne Rindell
For fans of: Amor Towles, Zoë Heller, M.L. Stedman
First line: “They said the typewriter would unsex us.”
About the book: Rose, a prim and proper typist working in 1920s Manhattan, forms a friendship with mysterious, fun-loving Odalie that borders on obsession. With Rose as its sly and slightly unreliable narrator, this suspenseful story will keep you guessing.
About the author: A former employee of a literary agency, Rindell is finishing up a Ph.D. in modernist literature at Rice University.
Read more: Review from our May issue.

THE EXECUTION OF NOA P. SINGLETON
By Elizabeth L. Silver
For fans of: Lionel Shriver, Gillian Flynn, John Grisham
First line: “In this world, you are either good or evil.”
About the book: We know from page one that Noa is guilty of murder. Silver’s psychologically acute narrative probes the all-important question of why—and provides a breathtaking answer.
About the author: Silver earned her legal knowledge as a judicial clerk and research attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She also has an M.A. in literature.
Read more: Review from our June issue.

THE GHOST BRIDE
By Yangsze Choo
For fans of: Lisa See, Eowyn Ivey, Jamie Ford, Erin Morgenstern
First line: “One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.”
About the book: In 1893 Malaysia, Li Lan finds herself betrothed to a ghost—and in love with another man. Her quest for freedom takes her through the land of the dead.
About the author: Choo got a degree in sociology from Harvard before launching her writing career.  
Read more: Interview in this issue.

THE FIELDS
By Kevin Maher
For fans of: Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Haigh, Nick Hornby
First line: “When Jack died I was real young, younger than I am now, and I said, in a temper, that I would never let it happen again.”
About the book: This ambitious coming-of-age story set in 1980s Dublin is told in the memorable voice of Jim Finnegan, the youngest of six in a working-class family.
About the author: From Dublin himself, Maher now lives in England and is a film critic for several papers, including the Guardian.
Read more: Review in this issue.

THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES
By Hanya Yanagihara
For fans of: Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver
First line: “I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small, unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest.”
About the book: Told through the annotated journals of Dr. Norton Perina, this sprawling tale has an old-fashioned feel. Perina has discovered the key to longevity on a remote island—but at what price?
About the author: Yanagihara is an editor for Condé Nast Travel—which explains Perina’s fantastic descriptions of island paradise.
Read more: Review in this issue.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

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Kirkus Reviews 2012 December #2
Former litigator Conklin's first novel employs the increasingly popular technique of overlapping contemporary and historical fictions--in this case, the lives of a young lawyer defining herself in 21st-century New York and a young slave with secret talents in 19th-century Virginia. In 1852, on a failing Virginia farm, 17-year-old Josephine cares for her dying mistress, Lu Anne Bell, while plotting her escape. Childless Lu Anne has always had a complicated relationship with the bright, naturally gifted Josephine; Lu Anne taught the girl to read and to paint but failed to protect Josephine from husband Robert Bell's rape when Josephine was barely 14. Now, Lu Anne tells Josephine a terrible secret before she dies. Cut to 2004. Lu Anne's art is highly prized as the work of a protofeminist artist sensitive to the plight of slaves. But while researching a case concerning reparations to slave descendants, Lina Sparrow, a white first-year lawyer in a cutthroat Manhattan firm, discovers that a controversy is brewing in the art world: Some art critics wonder if paintings attributed to Lu Anne were really completed by Josephine. At a gallery showing of Lu Anne/Josephine's work, Lina meets a young musician who claims to own several of the paintings. Hoping to prove he is Josephine's descendant, although he appears to be Caucasian, Lina sets out to uncover Josephine's history. Art and identity matter to Lina. Raised by her artist father, Oscar, she longs to know more about her long-dead mother, Grace, especially now that Oscar has painted a provocative series of portraits of Grace. As the focus shifts back and forth between the centuries, Josephine evolves into a wonderfully fresh character whose survival instinct competes with her capacity for love as she tries to reach freedom. But while Conklin clearly knows her way around the legal world, her lawyer, Lina, comes across more as a sketch than a portrait, and the choices she makes are boringly predictable. Provocative issues of race and gender intertwine in earnest if uneven issues-oriented fiction. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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Library Journal Reviews 2012 September #1
First-year law firm associate Lina Sparrow must find someone to serve as the face of a historic class-action lawsuit worth a fortune in reparations for descendants of American slaves. Since it's now suspected that antebellum artist Lu Anne Bell's empathetic depictions of slaves were the work of her house slave, Josephine, Lina is determined to track down one of Josephine's descendants. A big push to book clubs; with a 75,000-copy first printing. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Library Journal Reviews 2013 February #2

Lina Sparrow, the daughter of two moderately successful artists, is a New York attorney. In 2004, she is assigned the career-making job of discovering a living person with American-slave ancestry for a class-action suit seeking reparations for abuse and bondage. Josephine Bell, a 17-year-old house slave in antebellum Virginia in 1852, tends her mistress Lu Anne Bell, a mediocre artist, and dreams of freedom. Conklin switches between the two women's viewpoints as she slowly reveals the identity of the painter responsible for poignant works representing the people, free and enslaved, of Bell Creek Plantation. VERDICT Simultaneously telling the stories of two women separated in time by 150 years, the author slowly builds a suspenseful and dramatic revelation of their deep connection across the decades. Conklin's debut is a seamless juxtaposition of past and present, of the lives of two women, and of the redemptive nature of art and the search for truth and justice. Guaranteed to keep readers up long past their bedtimes. [See Prepub Alert, 8/9/12.]--Jane Henriksen Baird, Anchorage P.L., AK

[Page 94]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 January #2

Lawyer-turned-writer Conklin debuts with a braided novel of two intersecting tales separated by 150 years. In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a first-year associate at a prestigious New York law firm; in 1852, Josephine Bell is the titular "house girl," a slave on a Virginia farm. Assigned to work on a class-action suit involving slavery reparations, Lina searches out a suitable plaintiff for the case, hoping to find a descendant of slaves with an especially compelling story. Lina's father, an artist, suggests that Lina research the story of Josephine, speculated to be the real artist behind paintings attributed to Lu Anne Bell, her white master, and Lina embarks on a search that finds her retracing the footsteps of a runaway slave. The tragedy of Josephine leads Lina deeper into not only Josephine's history but her own, which helps her to make sense of her mother, a woman Lina never knew. Alternating between Lina and Josephine, this novel is unfortunately trite, predictable, and insensitive at its core: the lives of a 19th-century black slave and a 21st-century white lawyer are not simply comparable but mutually revealing, fodder for healing. Striving for affecting revelations, Conklin manages nothing more than unsatisfying platitudes and smugly pat realizations. Agent: Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management. (Feb.)

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Publishers Weekly Annex Reviews

Lawyer-turned-writer Conklin debuts with a braided novel of two intersecting tales separated by 150 years. In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a first-year associate at a prestigious New York law firm; in 1852, Josephine Bell is the titular "house girl," a slave on a Virginia farm. Assigned to work on a class-action suit involving slavery reparations, Lina searches out a suitable plaintiff for the case, hoping to find a descendant of slaves with an especially compelling story. Lina's father, an artist, suggests that Lina research the story of Josephine, speculated to be the real artist behind paintings attributed to Lu Anne Bell, her white master, and Lina embarks on a search that finds her retracing the footsteps of a runaway slave. The tragedy of Josephine leads Lina deeper into not only Josephine's history but her own, which helps her to make sense of her mother, a woman Lina never knew. Alternating between Lina and Josephine, this novel is unfortunately trite, predictable, and insensitive at its core: the lives of a 19th-century black slave and a 21st-century white lawyer are not simply comparable but mutually revealing, fodder for healing. Striving for affecting revelations, Conklin manages nothing more than unsatisfying platitudes and smugly pat realizations. Agent: Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management. (Feb.)

[Page ]. Copyright 2012 PWxyz LLC

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