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.
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.
Luminous.... The rare novel that seamlessly toggles between centuries and characters and remains consistently gripping throughout.... Powerful.
Conklin persuasively intertwines the stories of two women separated by time and circumstances but united by a quest for justice...Stretching back and forth across time and geography, this riveting tale is bolstered by some powerful universal truths.
[O]verlapping 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,... [who] taught the girl to read and to paint.... Cut to 2004. Lu Anne's art is highly prized as the work of a protofeminist artist sensitive to the plight of slaves. But...[s]ome art critics wonder if paintings attributed to Lu Anne were really completed by Josephine.... 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...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.
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