When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family. Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.
Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.
I will begin by saying that I was a little iffy on this book since I’m not hugely into historical fiction. That being said, I really enjoyed this book. It caught my attention from the first page and each time I wasn’t reading I longed to hurry and get back to the book. There were even points in the book where something happened so unexpectedly that I actually gasped out loud— and that is something that hasn’t happened since Harry Potter.
The characters in this story were really brought to life on the page. I found most of them endearing and wonderful. The protagonist, Lavinia, was well written in my opinion and her loyalty is what fueled her naivety throughout the story. However, near the end it felt like the character was deluding herself where race was concerned as if, even after being schooled in Williamsburg, she had not picked up any clues on the ‘rules’ of society. For the duration of the story I felt my heart warmed to her until the end of the story when her naivety felt tedious.
As much as I enjoyed the majority of the book I will say that nearing the end it took a turn toward the melodramatic. It wasn’t terrible, it just seemed very daytime soap opera in several chapters in an unnecessary way. However, given that it is historical fiction set in the plantation era, I suppose it is likely for these things to happen as addressed in the story. I just wish it had been spaced apart a little more? The last portion of the book felt rushed with multiple events piling up on top of one another.
The ending it self left a lot to be desired, in my personal opinion. I was ready for a grand paradigm shift and a turn for the better. What I got was a short synopsis of the future after the major turning point of the novel. It was one of those moments where the book ended and I sat staring at the page thinking, “Wait, that’s it?”
I know this book has been called an important one. Even Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) said it “does important work.” That it does, to a certain extent. It does show the great divide, the hatred from some and helplessness from others but in my opinion it never addressed anything deeper than that. It does a great job acknowledging it but never questioned it. I felt the protagonist could have been used in a way to at least question, to stand up for the people she called her family more than she did. What Lavinia does in the end is no small feat and was very courageous, especially in that time. It just felt like there could have been a little more oomph to it.
Overall, I will say that it was an excellently written first novel for Ms. Grissom and I would be delighted to see what she delivers to us in the future.
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