Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Original Sins by Peg Kingman

Title: Original Sins
Author: Peg Kingman
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Published: 2010
Pages: 448

Rating: 7 out of 10

Original Sins is the story of Grace Pollocke, a married woman in 1800's Pennsylvania who is unexpectedly reunited with a childhood friend - Anibadh, who fled from a life of slavery in Virginia years ago. Why would a runaway slave return and risk being discovered? When Grace asks herself the same question, she finds that Ani has returned in search of her daughter, still a slave at a plantation in Virginia, which just so happens to be owned by Grace's long-lost cousins. Concealing her identity, Grace travels with them to their home, in search of Anibadh's daughter.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The feeling of it was very sophisticated and authentic, and Grace is a wonderful character.

Something that struck me as different, perhaps even unique, was the view that the main character so openly voices through-out the story. Unlike most women in the 1800's, she does not believe in God, and could in fact be called an atheist. Being born in Scotland and having also lived in China, she has something to compare the Americas to, and she does not exactly shed a favorable light on them. It was interesting how some of the negative things Grace observed are still going on to this day. Maybe the author was using the story to make a point.

I loved the main character of Grace. She is a struggling painter, married to the man of her dreams, and struck me at once as intelligent and personable. I loved the way that she had "deep thoughts" about certain things, musing about marriage, freedom, religion, and smaller things. She is a very perceptive and insightful character.

However, while Grace's character is well written, the author relies far too heavily on her to carry the plot. The other characters - Dan, Anibadh, Diana, and Julia Grant, among others, are not so well written. They are always in the shadows, and we are never really sure about them. We know basics about them, but beyond that, they are a mystery.

The author tended to be very good at writing "bad" characters, such as the assuming, arrogant, self righteous women whom Grace stays with, but not so talented at portraying "good" characters. Julia Grant, an unexpected ally of Grace's, is simply a nice girl, and seemed just a bit too stereotypically good to me, as if the author was saying "She's on our side - does anything else matter?"
However, the shallow women who are certainly not on Grace's side are just so much fun to read about, it almost makes up for it. The author captured their conversations, meaningful sighs, and raised eyebrows perfectly. They may not have been delved into very deeply, but they were certainly realistic.

Kingman knows authentic speech from the 1800's, I was happy to find. Little phrases such as "Well, I swan..." or "Dash it all!" were strewn through-out the book. And she certainly did her research if she even knows little, less easy to remember facts, such as that United States of America was abbreviated a certain way back then, not just USA.

I almost regret to list the worst thing about this book - I truly did enjoy reading it, and I feel that I owe a more favorable review.
However, unlike most good books I have read, this one started off marvelously, and then once it got past the middle, went downhill.

This book is complicated. It could have easily been stretched out into an extremely long story, or even two books. Complexity and complications are something that I usually love, but here, they seemed out of place. It was simply unnecessary, and it slowed down the plot.
Do we really need to read pages and pages about Julia's chemistry experiments? When she sends Grace something to help whiten laundry, do we really need to read for 2 pages, Julia's instructions on how to use it? Some of these things do come in handy later, but the author could have just said that Julia sent her some detergent.
I was disappointed by the downfall of the story. The beginning was just so good!
And yet, the story gets wrapped up in its own plot, and Kingman does not seem to know how to simplify, and where to do it.
By the ending pages of the story, I just wanted to be done with it. The trial at the end went on for I don't know how long... About 15 pages? And it was not even one of those interesting trials. They were only asking everyone normal questions.
It was things such as this that really slow the story down. We simply don't need to read all of that. Kingman takes the saying "show the reader, don't tell them" too far!

I know that my review has listed a lot of negative points to this book, but I hope that it does not discourage you too much from reading it. Especially toward the beginning, this book was just wonderful to read, truly what historical fiction should be. It was good enough to make up for the slower ending chapters, and I am glad that I read it.
There is a prequel, which I will be looking for at my library.