Book Review! Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

So, of course, once I start reviewing books I’m get one that I’m not a big fan of. 

In fact, I’m not quite sure how this book ended up on my reading list, it’s not really the sort of novel that appeals to me.  In fact, I’m not even sure how I would categorize it.  Romance-lite?  Chick-lit drama?  At any rate, it was on my list so I borrowed it from the library, and I have this weird thing about finishing books I start.  I mean, they have to be baaaaad in order for me to stop midway.  (Case in point: I read all of the Twilight books.  All of them.)  I just can’t not know how something ends, even if it ends terribly.

Wench is set in the mid 19th century when the abolitionist movement is taking hold and former slaves are buying and finding their way to freedom.  It follows the life a house slave named Lizzie who becomes her master’s mistress at a young age.  He begins taking her to a vacation resort during the summers in Ohio, ostensibly to do his washing, and she meets with 3 other women brought by their masters under similar pretense and for the same reason.  The novel primarily focuses on Lizzie’s story, but also touches on the paths of the other women: Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu.

I think Wench started out with some interesting ideas but ended up following an all too familiar path.  For example, Lizzie actually find herself in love with her master, who teaches her to read and write, treats her favorably, and fathers her three children.  It’s an interesting dynamic, almost a Stockholm Syndrome idea, but I didn’t feel like it was a theme that was ever really developed.  Lizzie’s character never made me feel any sort of dissonance that she might have experienced reconciling her feelings with the realization that she was simply property to her owner. It was certainly implied, and she was scorned by the other women for this feeling, but I never felt like I could hear her justification, or her angst.

There is also a brief scene where Lizzie’s mistress confronts her, and even cares for her, following an abortion attempt.  I felt like that relationship could have been an interesting angle – both women were being hurt deeply by the same man, and although they were advesaries were the two most likely to understand the situation of the other, but the scene was flat and felt parenthetical to the rest of the book rather than integral to the character’s growth.  In fact, I’m not sure that Lizzie grew at all in the book.  Despite her summers at the resort meeting free men and women, despite seeing a friend (and fellow mistress) handed off unceremoniously to another man, despite her friends failing and succeeding on their own paths to freedom, despite finding abolition pamphlets and reading them to her fellow slaves, and despite pages of hand-wringing and indecision, the book ended with her in the exact same place (physically and emotionally) as it began.

Positives?  The author has a nice way with language.  Simple and clear.  But unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to save the novel. 

K’s rating of Wench: 3/10 mangoes

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