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.