“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.
In this gripping New York Times bestseller, Kathleen Grissom brings to life a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War, where a dark secret threatens to expose the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate.
Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family.
In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves.
Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.
The Kitchen House has been on my radar for a while now, and I finally settled in and read it over the weekend in preparation for my book group discussion this coming week. Sometimes you need a little nudge to get to the good stuff, ya know?
Wow. This book has it all — terrific historical setting, a broad and varied cast of characters, and pains and sorrows that are instantly relatable.
Lavinia’s story is unique, as most pre-Civil War novels I’ve read with Southern settings focus strictly on the master/slave divide, broken along race lines. In The Kitchen House, Lavinia straddles the color line. As an orphaned indentured Irish girl, she’s settled — happily — with the black slaves on the plantation, where she finds love, comfort, and family. Yet based on the color of her skin, she’s easily accepted into the world of the big house as well, first as a companion for her master’s mentally ill wife, and eventually as a full-fledged member of the family.
Meanwhile, among the kitchen house slaves, the illegitimate children of the plantation owners are relegated to yet another generation of slavery, subject to the whims and demons of the twisted mind of their current owner.
Lavinia is the main narrator of the story, although we do get briefer chapters from Belle’s perspective, which help round out what Lavinia sees of plantation life and offer a sort of behind-the-scenes viewpoint that we’d otherwise miss.
The heartache and tragedy that plague Lavinia and her loved ones feel almost too much sometimes. It seems like every time there’s a chance for something terrible to happen, it does. The pain that all of the characters must endure makes the book tough to take, even while it’s impossible to look away.
The author seems to be drawing a parallel between the slaves’ captivity and Lavinia’s own powerlessness and lack of rights in a loveless marriage to a cruel, domineering, dangerous man. I can accept this up to a point: Despite her fine clothes and house, Lavinia is her husband’s property and is basically a prisoner, with no access to the outside world or to anyone who might provide help. Still, her situation isn’t nearly as helpless as that of the slaves, and her skin color and status offer her a protection that her beloved family does not have.
The Kitchen House is powerful and well-written, and I recommend it strongly for anyone with an interest in American history during that time period. The characters are unforgettable.
As far as I understand, The Kitchen House (published in 2010) was originally written as a stand-alone, but I was excited to learn that a follow-up novel (Glory Over Everything) has just been published. I can’t wait to spend more time with these characters… and just hope that at least some of them get the happy ending they so clearly deserve.
Title: The Kitchen House
Author: Kathleen Grissom
Publication date: January 1, 2010
Length: 385 pages
Genre: Historical fiction