Title: A Sitting in St. James
Author: Rita Williams-Garcia
Publisher: Quill Tree Books
Copyright: May 25, 2021
Format: E-Book, 480 Pages
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, African American Historical Fiction, Multigenerational Family Fiction
This astonishing novel from three-time National Book Award finalist Rita Williams-Garcia about the interwoven lives of those bound to a plantation in antebellum America is an epic masterwork—empathetic, brutal, and entirely human—and essential reading for both teens and adults grappling with the long history of American racism.
1860, Louisiana. After serving as mistress of Le Petit Cottage for more than six decades, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has decided, in spite of her family’s objections, to sit for a portrait.
While Madame plots her last hurrah, stories that span generations—from the big house to out in the fields—of routine horrors, secrets buried as deep as the family fortune, and the tangled bonds of descendants and enslaved, come to light to reveal a true portrait of the Guilberts.
For many years, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has been mistress of Le Petit Cottage, a plantation in St. James, Louisiana. Originally an aristocrat from France, she married a slaveholder by the name of Bayard Guilbert while still very young. In the more than sixty years since, she has despised living in Louisiana. She has never forgotten the decadent and indulgent life that she once lived at the French royal court. When the plantation begins to suffer and the family is close to bankruptcy, Sylvie’s wastrel of a son, Lucien, has a plan. He intends to marry his son, Byron, off to the daughter of a neighboring plantation owner. While all of this goes on, Sylvie makes up her mind to have a portrait painted of herself.
A Sitting in St. James is a beautiful and masterfully written narrative that shows the horrors of slavery. This book is a rather complex one because there are so many layers. All the characters are well written with unique quirks and personalities. Many of them are memorable and feel very human. There is the clever and unassuming Thisbe, the personal slave of Sylvie, who endures all kinds of cruelty. There is arrogant Sylvie who has delusions of grandeur, reminiscing about her earlier life in France. The cruelty of the slaveholders is something that consistently stands out in the narrative. It feels very raw and real.
Another aspect that stands out is the richness of the language and culture. The languages of Creole and French are interspersed through certain parts of the book. One final thing that I liked was the author’s note, which provides a lot of important context. This was one of the most unique books I have read in a while.
Originally featured on the History Novel Society website.