The Housemaid's Daughter: Book summary and reviews of The Housemaid's Daughter by Barbara Mutch

The Housemaid's Daughter

By Barbara Mutch

The Housemaid's Daughter
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  • Published in USA  Dec 2013,
    416 pages.

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Book Summary

Barbara Mutch's stunning first novel tells a story of love and duty colliding on the arid plains of Apartheid-era South Africa.

When Cathleen Harrington leaves her home in Ireland in 1919 to travel to South Africa, she knows that she does not love the man she is to marry there - her fiance Edward, whom she has not seen for five years. Isolated and estranged in a small town in the harsh Karoo desert, her only real companions are her diary and her housemaid, and later the housemaid's daughter, Ada. When Ada is born, Cathleen recognizes in her someone she can love and respond to in a way that she cannot with her own family.

Under Cathleen's tutelage, Ada grows into an accomplished pianist and a reader who cannot resist turning the pages of the diary, discovering the secrets Cathleen sought to hide. As they grow closer, Ada sees new possibilities in front of her - a new horizon. But in one night, everything changes, and Cathleen comes home from a trip to find that Ada has disappeared, scorned by her own community. Cathleen must make a choice: should she conform to society, or search for the girl who has become closer to her than her own daughter?

Set against the backdrop of a beautiful, yet divided land, The Housemaid's Daughter is a startling and thought-provoking novel that intricately portrays the drama and heartbreak of two women who rise above cruelty to find love, hope, and redemption.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Rich in detail and subtle in its politics, this affecting novel tells a poignant, inspiring story." - Booklist

"Interludes from Cathleen's diary, intended to supply an additional perspective, are a bit heavy-handed, as is the predictable (and bleak) ending. But a vividly drawn setting and Ada's consistent, special voice drive the story and keep the pages turning." - Publishers Weekly

"In creating a white Lady Bountiful and a wise but unworldly black servant, South African Mutch has more in common with The Help's Kathryn Stockett than Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer." - Kirkus

"A compelling story ... Ada's voice is by turns as lyrical and fierce as the music she plays on her beloved piano ... Mutch evokes compassion for this stark and beautiful land and for the characters who strive to find their place amidst the turmoil that grips it." - Patricia Falvey, bestselling author of The Yellow House

"[An] exquisite debut ... This is a book to be cherished, one that will grow deeper and richer with re-reading." - Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August

"If you loved The Help, try The Housemaid's Daughter ... The friendship at its center will leave your heart singing." - Good Housekeeping (UK)

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Reader Reviews

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Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Judy G. (Carmel, IN)
Households and Families
This book was interesting as it got me thinking that even long ago 'outsiders' often became thought of and treated as family members. The story does a good job of weaving racial and cultural differences into stories about family. Additionally, it points out that there have been people throughout history who were able to remain free of bias and who at times were the only ones ensuring survival of those who were being outcast or mistreated due to bias. Can we foster support for a kinder, more bias-free world through books such as this and reading in general?

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Michael F. (Providence, RI)
A surprisingly elegant debut
To be perfectly honest, I was not prepared to like this book. It seemed it was to be a light read, one fraught with probable missteps – a white woman writing from the perspective of the black daughter of a mid-century housemaid in South Africa's remote Karoo. But from the start, the writing was delightful, the characters true and sympathetic, and the story simply engaging. Stylistically, I noticed none of the awkward prose commonly seen in first novels. Quite the contrary, Barbara Mutch seems a born writer who, if justice exists, must certainly have a successful career ahead of her. I was happy to have spent a few days at her emotional mercy, immersed in her sweet, sometimes heartbreaking story about the true definition of family.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Duane F. (Cape Girardeau, MO)
The Housemaid's Daughter
This books resounds with lyrical passages, historical and at the same time it conveys a rich sense of person. The characters are well developed and easily loved, even those one would consider as the antagonists can be seen as sympathetic. The plot is set in a period of unrest and turmoil. Apartheid and South Africa come alive as Ada ventures beyond the safety of the only home she has ever know, as a simple housemaid's daughter. The reader is engaged from the first page as this gentle, insightful, and brave young woman begins her life. Thru her narrative, we come to know the other characters.

Women of this time were considered of less value and yet it is these strong women who must contend with the new laws against the commingling of the races. To be a woman is not of value and to be a black woman is less, but to bare or be a biracial child is criminal. Wrapped in these terms, Ada and Cathleen, her Madam, must face these laws and find a way to survive. The relationship of these two women will inspire and awe the reader.

This book allows us to see their relationship first and the world second. It is an extraordinary story of bonds that can't be broken and love that surpasses their circumstances. And yet, it is written as a rhapsody, as beautiful as any piece of music. It spreads across the pages as nimbly as Ada's fingers fly across the keys, with Cathleen standing behind her back and Dawn, her daughter standing on the threshold of a new future for South Africa.

Every so often I come across a book which haunts my memory, this is one that will fill and haunt the reader at the same time.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sylvia J
Housemaid's Struggle
This book was wonderful on so many levels, but in particular I enjoyed the relationship between Mrs. Cath and Ada. Time and time again, we see that love can cross oceans and can cross the skin color divide. I felt many times during my time spent reading this book that my heart was affected- with all of the trials and tribulations that Ada suffered- my heart at times was ripped apart by what she went through and other times it was spread open by the true love she felt for those she loved in her lifetime. Reading about apartheid- taken straight from our own Jim Crow laws in this country is not for the faint of heart. I highly recommend this book for those who too are willing to have their hearts opened first by the naïve girl and then the brave woman that Ada became.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Susan K. (Dartmouth, MA)
Lots of unanswered questions.
In this book, the protagonist, Ada, was someone I couldn't connect with very much; her personality seemed flat, somehow, and incapable of showing much emotion. The story line was good, although it proceeded too slowly for my liking. I did enjoy the author's scene-setting talents, her ability to almost put you right in the landscape, feeling the breeze and smelling the scents. She seemed less proficient in portraying people's feelings. A number of the characters were almost totally undeveloped, Dawn and Rosemary in particular. Fleshing out those two characters would have helped the story (for me, at least). A good first book, nonetheless - book clubs will like it.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Nikki M. (Fort Wayne, IN)
Underwhelmed...
While "The Housemaid's Daughter" was an enjoyable enough read, I feel that I've read this same story many times before. It was a little too predictable for me.

...10 more reader reviews

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Barbara Mutch was born and raised in South Africa, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. She is married with two sons and divides her time between Cape Town and London. Visit her at www.barbaramutch.com

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