Julia's Reviews > Property

Property by Valerie Martin
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's review
Jan 27, 2011

really liked it
Read in January, 2011

"Property" is, in my experience, one of the rare page-turners that is not YA or fantasy/sci-fi. "Property" is set in antebellum Louisiana, on a sugar cane plantation. The protagonist and narrator is Manon Gaudet, the young wife of the plantation owner (whom she loathes). She and her husband are both fixated upon Sarah, a beautiful slave in their house who has born two children by her owner.

Manon can hardly be called a heroine, but she is both the best and worst thing about the book. She is a fascinating narrator, with a wonderfully snide voice, and her longing for independence is wholly sympathetic. But she's not a "nice" woman. "Property" is not a "nice" book. Manon is beyond selfish; she is utterly devoid of empathy. She never expresses the slightest shred of caring for her mother, or Sarah, or Walter, the deaf child of Sarah and Gaudet who is treated more like a dog than a boy. She is incredibly racist and inexplicably cruel towards Sarah, despite the fact that she knows her husband has repeatedly raped the young woman.

Sarah is the most likable character in the novel, but she remains to some extent an enigma because Manon studies her intently yet refuses to see her as more than property. As a writer, I imagine it would have been tempting to write this book from Sarah's perspective, or to create an entirely different protagonist, perhaps one who could, you know, feel empathy for another human being. It would have been tempting, but I greatly respect Valerie Martin for her choice of protagonist; in writing Manon, she chose to forgo the easier path, the one that is familiar and understandable to us. This is why I say that Manon is both the best and worst thing about the book: worst because she is not a good person, and best for precisely the same reason. She is not a good person, but she is terribly believable and she is nothing if not fascinating as a narrator.

I will leave you with this passage, a conversation between Manon and a doctor about why she has not yet conceived a child despite being physically healthy:

"It is because I despise my husband," I said.

He looked up at me briefly, but without surprise, then turned his attention to his eyeglasses. "Unhappy marriages still produce children," he said.

"Perhaps they are not unhappy enough," I replied.

"Has it occurred to you that a child might be a comfort to you in your suffering?"

"I am not in need of comforting," I said.

He put the glasses down and gave me his full, unfocused attention. "Did you love your husband when you married him?" he asked.

"I hardly knew him. Ours was considered an advantageous match."

"And how did he earn your enmity?"

"Well, let me think," I said. "Would the fact that the servant I brought to the marriage has borne him a son, and that this creature is allowed to run loose in the house like a wild animal, would that be, in your view, sufficient cause for a wife to despise her husband?"

He shrugged. "Mrs. Gaudet, there are many such cases. This cannot be unknown to you."

"That is precisely my grievance," I explained. "That it is common."

"Why not sell the girl?"

"No. He would only find another. And this one suits me. She hates him as much as I do."
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