The Kitchen House
In 1791, Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan, becomes an indentured servant on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Although she is white, she is raised by a slave family with whom she develops close emotional ties. One of its members is Belle, who also lives on the margins of two different worlds because she is the greatly loved, illegitimate daughter of the master of the plantation. The reader is drawn into the interconnected lives of two families, one white and free, the other black and enslaved. Most of the novel is told in Lavinia’s first-person voice, with shorter chapters narrated by Belle. As readers, we watch these two young women come of age. Lavinia marries the young heir to the plantation. How can she reconcile her new position with her past loyalties? Belle’s love for a fellow slave conflicts with her father’s vision of a free life for her far away in Philadelphia.
Many of the characters in this novel come vividly alive. The reader can truly care about them. But Belle is a stronger, more fully fleshed out and consistently motivated character than Lavinia. I wanted more of her voice and less of Lavinia’s. Some of the plot twists depend on characters making false assumptions that seem unlikely. Why does Lavinia jump to the conclusion that the man she truly loves is involved with Belle? Why does Belle’s half-brother believe she is his father’s mistress when everyone else seems to know she is his daughter? Though this novel veers toward melodrama, most of the time I was willing to suspend disbelief and be caught up in the story.