Published by Touchstone on February 2, 2010
Source: I borrowed this book from my local library.
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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.
The Kitchen House was my book club’s pick back in January. It wasn’t a book I’d have picked up on my own, but I liked it. Grissom has an easygoing writing style and I couldn’t resist being completely involved in the story.
The story is told in the voices of Lavinia and Belle. The shifts between these two perspectives were a little clunky; it took time to adjust to the change in voice. There’s a love triangle that I wasn’t really into, probably because it was more like a quadrilateral, and that felt over the top. On the other hand, there was a polyamorous thread that worked really well and made me think about how and why societal norms could be upended living on the plantation. Little details throughout the novel offered more insight into aspects I hadn’t before considered: Communal wet nursing (out of necessity). Different faiths among the slaves (both Allah and God are mentioned).
Lavinia is so, so naive. Even though she’s grown up among the slaves, she does not understand how different their circumstances are compared to her own servantship. She doesn’t comprehend that truly, they are not free. This comes to a head after Lavinia marries, making for a powerful commentary on how the need for a secure future can make us blind to other things, cause us to ignore our gut feelings or deem them less important.
“…sometimes we got to live it out before we learn.”
I enjoyed The Kitchen House. When I heard the story will continue in an upcoming novel (Glory Over Everything; due out next week), I immediately requested a galley. I’ll be posting my thoughts on that one soon.