March 13, 2014

Across the Divide

The Housemaid's Daughter by Barbara Mutch

Release Date: December 2013
Publisher: Macmillan | St. Martin's Press
Pages: 416 pages
Source & Format: Gifted; Hardcover
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
When Cathleen Harrington leaves her home in Ireland in 1919 to travel to South Africa, she knows that she does not love the man she is to marry there - her fiancé Edward, whom she has not seen for five years. Isolated and estranged in the small town in the harsh Karoo desert, her only real companions are her diary and her housemaid, and later the housemaid's daughter, Ada. When Ada is born, Cathleen recognizes in her someone she can love and respond to in a way that she cannot with her own family. Under Cathleen's tutelage, Ada grows into an accomplished pianist and a reader who cannot resist turning the pages of the diary, discovering the secrets Cathleen sought to hide. As they grow closer, Ada sees new possibilities in front of her - a new horizon. But in one night, everything changes, and Cathleen comes home from a trip to find that Ada has disappeared, scorned by her own community. Cathleen must make a choice: should she conform to society, or search for the girl who has become closer to her than her own daughter?

Set against the backdrop of a beautiful, yet divided land, The Housemaid's Daughter is a startling and thought-provoking novel that intricately portrays the drama and heartbreak of two women who rise above cruelty to find love, hope, and redemption.

Thoughts on The Housemaid's Daughter
Cassie gifted me a copy of The Housemaid's Daughter for Christmas, and I was thrilled because it sounded right up my alley! I mean, first of all, the cover is gorgeous. And then that summary! It sounded like it was written just for me: early 1900s, woman leaving her home, South Africa, a secret diary, a relationship with mother-daughter qualities...

Here's my biggest issue with The Housemaid's Daughter - the cover and summary are really misleading. I kept wondering if the cover designer and copywriter had even read the book in question! It's not that I didn't like what the book was actually about, but it was so not what I was expecting that I had a hard time overcoming my confusion and frustration about that fact.

For example, I have no idea who that white woman on the cover is supposed to be. Possibly Cathleen - the woman who sounds like the novel's heroine based on the description? Maybe. But, to be honest, she plays such a minor, almost inconsequential role in the book. This isn't Cathleen's story at all. Instead, the story is narrated by and focuses on the daughter of Cathleen's housemaid. The Housemaid's Daughter is a fitting title, so it's a shame the book wasn't marketed in a way that accurately conveyed its contents.

The young black girl, named Ada, gains an education and becomes an accomplished musician through her place in the household, which leaves her caught in a precarious place in South African society. She isn't white, but she doesn't really fit in the black community either. This conflict is important because the majority of the book takes place during apartheid, which was a system of legalized racial segregation that took place in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Again, the cover implies it's going to be a different time period and story completely. I actually enjoyed reading about this time period, but I felt like there was one weakness in the book that I just couldn't get past enough to fall in love with it:

Everything in the book - from the characters to the plot - felt very surface level to me. There wasn't a lot of emotional depth or heart in what I was reading, if that makes sense. I'm not sure if it's because the book covers such a long span of time (resulting in the book just skimming the surface of some events) or if it was just because I, personally, was finding it hard to connect to the characters or the story. There are some really difficult, painful things that are mentioned in this book, but it never really felt like it was fully fleshed out.

Ada wasn't a memorable character, despite the number of memorable things that occur in her life. She seemed so naive, so unconnected from reality, that it made it hard for me to get really invested in her story. And I'm not really sure that it accurately reflects what a black woman would have thought and felt during this time period. I don't think an author has to look like their characters in order to write them. Plenty of women write amazing male characters and vice versa. But have you ever read a book where a man is writing from a female perspective and something just seems a bit off? Like you're too aware of the fact that you're reading a man's take on a woman? I felt like that at times during The Housemaid's Daughter - that it was a white woman's version of the black perspective during this time period.

For me, this book was best when it was describing the setting. I thought Mutch really made South Africa come alive. I loved the descriptive way she wrote about the places, and I could picture it all so well! This was definitely my favorite thing about The Housemaid's Daughter.

Overall, I liked the book but don't think it really lived up to its potential. There are some beautiful things about the writing, but the one-dimensional characters and lack of depth kept me from really connecting to the story. I liked the themes it set out to explore, but it needed an infusion of emotion and more complexity in the characters to really elevate the story and sweep me away.

So Quotable
"And I remind myself that wherever one finds oneself, home and love is lent to each of us only for a while. We must care for it while it's ours, and cherish its memory once it's gone."

12 comments:

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    1. Total bummer! Hate when it happens.

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  2. That is so not cool about the cover! And the misleading description... I don't know how pulling tricks like that does a book any good, so why do it in the first place?!

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    1. RIGHT?! I would have wanted to read the book even with a more accurate description, but it was frustrating to think you're getting one book and end up with another.

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  3. I HATE that this book deceived you from the synopsis but glad you still enjoyed it. I must say, I know you have personal ties to South Africa, but I would love to read a book set there and see what all the fuss is about ;)

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    1. THANK YOU SUGAR! I'm so glad I got to read this book :) Bummer on the summary, but I would have wanted to read it anyway. And yes, I gotta introduce you to South Africa in book form soon!

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  4. Hmm. That's so weird about cover. It's very pretty! But doesn't seem to make much sense. I was curious about this one...but after reading your thoughts, I think I'll probably just skip it.

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    1. It's SO pretty, but it really doesn't make sense. I hate when the cover and/or summer really doesn't match, even if I still like the book. It just seems like a missed opportunity!

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  5. Sad the characters were so lame and uninteresting but holla for the fact that she portrayed South Africa so well! I'm sure it brought back some really good memories?? :)

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    1. I was sad about the characters, too, but I did looooove the setting. And totally brought back some good memories :)

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  6. I think it's so strange that the cover and copy didn't match the story. That kind of makes me sad! But I'm glad to hear that it was still beautifully written, particularly when it came to describing the setting.

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    1. Yeah, I was kinda sad it didn't match, too. Such a missed opportunity! But yes, I still loved how she wrote about the setting so that was a huge plus.

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