on May 15, 2003
'Property' relays the life experiences of Manon, the white wife of a Louisiana plantation owner during the time of slavery. Manon is disgusted by her husband but is hardly more sympathetic herself. The book expresses the hypocrisy and evils of slave ownership through Manon's petty distinctions between her vulgar, brutal husband, and her idealized view of her father. Ultimately, there are no hero's of this tale. Each character is uniquely flawed and human, and the beauty of this book is its realistic recreation of the time period without appealing to sentimentality or melodrama.
This is an excellent book, and a very easy read. Like any good depiction of the human grotesque, reading 'Property' feels like watching a car accident, you are disgusted and appalled, yet you can't look away.
on April 22, 2003
This is an interesting story of two antebellum women (one white, one black) in Louisiana, both of whom are "property". The main character in this story (told from her point of view), Manon Gaudet, is a young, white, married woman living on a sugar plantation in Louisiana in 1828. I think that the author does an excellent job illustrating how desensitized white property owners (of human chattel, that is) had to have been in order to justify the existence of slavery to themselves. Manon is NOT a likeable, nor even a sympathetic character. She hates her own status as "chattel", yet she never seems to make the connection that she is no different from the slave Sarah, nor any other slave on her husband's plantation, nor does she ever understand the slaves' desire to be free despite her own yearnings of freedom from the slavery of her marriage. (Women were "chattel", i.e., the property of their husbands, and had absolutely no rights of their own once they married. The money or property that a woman brought to the marriage in the form of a dowry became her husband's upon their marriage. If he gambled or drank it away, or spent it all on a mistress or prostitutes she had no legal recourse because a wife was not considered a person in the eyes of the law. She could not sue to get it back, nor could she even protect it from creditors if her husband was in debt. There was no way for her to try to change the system because women were not only not educated in the same way that men were educated, but were prohibited from the professions such as doctor or lawyer, and, even more importantly, they could not vote! Married women were not even permitted to own property until the mid-19th century, and even then, once this law was passed, subsequent legislation was passed which chipped away at this basic principle.) The status (or lack thereof) of women (married women in particular) is a secondary theme running throughout the book, and just when the readers begin to feel a bit of sympathy for Manon, the author shifts to show readers how devoid of feelings Manon truly is. She actually thinks that the white plantation owners have done a huge favor for the blacks by making them slaves! She shows again and again that she considers them inferior beings in every way (much the way men consider women inferior beings), and then wonders why slaves show resentment when their own families are torn apart by masters who sell off children, "spouses", or parents. The way she and her aunt or even her husband discuss how much another human being will bring at market is appalling. Readers could substitute "chair" or "painting" or even a "tract of land" for the slave--there was no sense that they ever understood that it was a human being they were discussing! The human being is reduced to an item, which loses value depending upon age, gender, etc. Her view of slaves and her failure to see them as other than something which exists only to meet her every need is chilling.
Her husband was no better, sexually abusing the young male slaves, getting Sarah pregnant twice, and ignoring his own children.
Sarah had the fewest choices of all, and her attempt to run away failed, but not before she not only experienced freedom, dignity, and respect in the North but also learned what it was like to be a white man in the world, something that Manon and other females in her family will never experience. Even though Manon understands that these experiences have transformed Sarah, she still wonders about the madness of Northerners who are beginning to agitate about the evils of slavery, and questions why they would treat a black person with respect and dignity. None of her experiences have taught her this most important lesson.
on March 29, 2003
Unusual and extraordinary - these are the first 2 words that come to my mind when trying to describe this book. I've never read anything like it (...and to think, I read it only 2 sittings!)!
This was a fictional slave narrative in the most unusual sense ... from the point of view of a remorseless female slave owner. It examines the psyche of the oppressor, making one even more sympathetic toward the oppressed! Valerie Martin skillfully created a fascinating portrait of an insolent and self-centered young woman and, in doing so, delved into that "peculiar institution" that denied freedom to whole race of people and was tolerated for so long in this country! VERY POWERFUL! I would definitely consider reading more of Ms. Martin's work.
on October 7, 2004
"Property" is a short, quietly brutal novel about the relationship between mistress and slave and husband and wife in the antebellum South. Manon Gaudet, through whose eyes the narrative unfolds, is an unhappy and ultimately cruel woman married to a perverse and insensitive husband. Raised in a slave-owning household and now mistress of one herself, she must deal with her husband's infidelilty with her own slave, Sarah, whose resentment is all too apparent. At her mother's death, she inherits enough to maintain herself independently, but discovers that, as a woman, she has no legal right to her own money and therefore no escape. She is as much chattel as Sarah, her slave. Manon gains her freedom when her husband is killed in a slave rebellion, but she herself is severely wounded and Sarah escapes. Ironically, her husband's death has left her independent, but not a rich enough piece of property to attract a new husband. She resigns herself to a fate on the margins of society and asserts her own property rights by engaging a slave hunter to recapture the runaway Sarah.
I wouldn't call "Property" a completely pleasant book to read, but it is powerful. .Martin has written her novel in a terse, matter-of-fact style. "Property" is not one of those books in which the heroine realizes the error of her ways and becomes a better person. Far from it--Manon is a product of her upbringing and is totally desensitized to her slaves' humanity. Her bitterness comes through in every line, and her self-absorption becomes increasingly claustrophobic as events unfold. At the beginning of the book, Manon seems like a potentially sympathetic character, but by the end she's as much a monster as her husband. She may not like her own lot, but she never understands the similarities between her position and that of her slave. Manon may envy Sarah's short-lived freedom and her temporary disguise as a free white man, but she never connects the dots to see her slave as equally human.
"Property" is a short book and a fairly easy read. But don't let this deceive you. "Property" will linger in your memory for a long while.
on June 22, 2012
Those are the first words that come to mind upon finishing "Property".
"Property" is not a story that I can say that I liked-there is nothing to like here.
Manon Gaudet is the wife of a plantation owner in 1828 Louisiana. Her marriage is irretrievably broken, both by her husband's actions and by her own choice. She is vain, arrogant, cold, and uncaring, judgmental in the extreme, and prone to extremism. She hates the plantation on which she lives, despises her husband, and is by turns cold toward and dismissive of the slaves who make her life of ease possible. In an era of paranoia about slave uprisings, Manon is indifferent to her husband's fears (until they turn out to have merit), choosing instead to enjoy through her spyglass the sadistic torments visited upon the slaves of the plantation by the overseer and her husband. To her husband's handicapped bastard son, fathered with the slave with which Manon was gifted upon her marriage, she is heartless. Even her own mother is treated with impatience. In short, Manon Gaudet is probably the most unlikable protagonist to come down the pike since Humbert Humbert.
While the story is not enjoyable at all, the book itself is a marvel of brevity and a brave work by a talented writer. The language is rich and evocative of the times. Period detail is spot on, as is the history (though I do wonder if quite so many slaves were killed and maimed at that time for rebellion as the narrator documents--perhaps this is a detail to be taken as from an unreliable narrator). Manon, as the main character and speaking in her own words/thoughts, is the most well drawn, of course, but through her equivocations and sneering commentary, we get a decent view of the other principle characters: her husband and her slave, Sarah. And Martin accomplishes this is a scant 193 pages.
Aside from the previous things I liked, I admire Martin for keeping her protagonist in character. Manon is impossible to like, absolutely impossible. Even when it clear to the reader that she is as much property as the slaves she owns, even when she acknowledges that fact, she is never humbled, never once takes that as a reason to be compassionate to those in a similar situation. I think that is a very true to life fact, though most authors pander to our need to believe that under pressure most people do the right thing. Martin has hit upon a deeper truth: though we might want to believe most people are noble, many are not, and for some people the only way to deal with their own untenable situation is by clinging to their feelings of superiority over someone else. Don't we see that in the rise of racism every time the economy is bad?
Another thing I liked was Martin's resistance to making the slaves angelic, or at least better than human. This is often an issue in books dealing with this most troubling time in American history: in zeal to distance themselves from the practice of slave holding, many authors make the slaves more sympathetic, more heroic, more angelic than their masters. In other words, less human. In any relationship, no matter who holds the power, there are both the good and the bad on both sides. Even within a single human being there are lovely and not so lovely sides. I liked that Sarah, clearly the loser on any scale of measurement, is not automatically the most sympathetic character. Her behavior toward her handicapped son is abominable. (In fact, that son, Walter, is the only character for which I consistently had sympathy). Again, she is very human in a decision she makes that could conceivably cost Manon her life. There is no comfortable, "We're all in this together; let's help each other in sisterhood" camaraderie (which I think would happen if this book was popular fiction or, God forbid, a movie). It's a Hobbsian every man for himself world.
Manon's husband seems to garner a lot of vitrol in reviews, but I found him more sympathetic than the protagonist, despite how horrible he can be (there is truly no one to like in this book). He's presented through her eyes, so we see a man who is dimwitted, slow to speech, dull, sadistic, animalistic...then we see through Manon's retelling of the story of their early marriage how she's treated him with cold dismissiveness almost from the time they first wed. We see his tears when she shuns him and his worry when she's away, his care in keeping her as up to date about the plantation and the neighborhood as any man of the time would be wont to do. He notices little things about her, even after many years of emotional estrangement--not something to be expected from one who felt nothing for her. We see him go to great lengths to save her life. All of his attributes are presented as signs of his weakness,of course, by a woman who has chosen to despise him. To be clear, he is no angel, either--the first scene of him tormenting slaves for his own enjoyment is ghastly, one of the hardest scenes I've ever had the displeasure of reading.
Finally, I liked the end. I've read some other reviews where that is an issue for the reviewer, but I found it refreshing. As tempting as it must have been to inject a tiny but of humanity in Manon, Martin keeps her true to the character she created at the start: cold, self centered, haughty.
"Property" is not a book for those looking for soft scenes or easy answers. It is hard and cold; it resolves nothing; there is not a single likable character. It is challenging, thought provoking, and ugly. It is lovely.
on October 27, 2003
Valerie Martin's Orange Prize winning novel "Property" opens with an unforgettable scene which hints at sexual perversion straight from Tennessee Williams territory. But Martin is a mistress of restraint, economy and understatement. She shows how in her hands, less is more. Eschewing sensationalism, she serves up some of the most spare yet articulately written prose I have read in recent years, recalling a style that has become unfashionably rare among contemporary fiction writers.
"Property" aptly describes the relationship that existed between white plantation owners and their black slaves during the 1800s in the deep south of America. Less obviously, it also characterises the relationship between men and women, whose legal status in society relegates them to the position of chattel. Should it therefore surprise readers that we have a cold, unfeeling and utterly self-absorbed heroine in Manon, a hapless young woman trapped in an arranged and loveless marriage to a boor, a philanderer, and a pervert ? Can we expect chattel to behave humanly towards other chattel, when its own humanity has been denied rightful expression ? Note how Sarah, Manon's slave and her husband's kept woman, remains almost silent throughout. The few words spoken between mistress and slave never defined their owner-chattel relationship more eloquently. The thinly disguised contempt Sarah feels for her mistress to whom she was "gifted", mirrors the cruelty - born of frustration and sexual jealousy - of Manon, who relentlessly pursues her property rights when Sarah escapes only to realise she has gained a hollow victory. The novel achieves its dramatic climax in a scene which has Manon eating her heart out upon discovery that Sarah, her property, has at least experienced albeit briefly the trappings of being a white man, when she herself will forever be condemned as his property in her own polite society. The irony of this observation cannot escape any perceptive reader.
Martin's "Property" is a huge triumph of literary substance over form. It is understated but no less powerful than the emotions its subject evokes. A major achievement and highly, highly recommended.
on March 16, 2003
I was drawn to this book because it took place approximately 40 years before the Civil War, and it was told in a voice that we rarely hear from...the female point of view, specifically a planter's wife who is completely unsympathetic. I enjoyed this book because it was sharp, quick, and closely focused on the shared women's issues that Manon and Sarah have in common, despite the mistress/slave relationship. Unlike other books on this period that I have read, it has no fluff. I enjoyed it, and read it in a day and a half.
on February 4, 2005
Property takes place in 1820's Louisiana and tells the story of Manon
Gaudet, the wife of a sugar plantation owner. Manon has an idealized view
of marriage to a planter until she finds out that her husband has forced
Manon's slave, Sarah, to become his mistress and is the father of Sarah's
two children. Manon is devastated by the betrayal and becomes bitter. She
rails against the system that treats her as nothing more than the property
of her husband and wills her self not to have children.
Manon is freed from the oppressive grip of her husband when a slave revolt
occurs on the plantation. Manon's husband is killed and Sarah and her baby
daughter escape. Manon sells the plantation and moves to New Orleans with
Sarah's deaf son and two house servants. An inheritance from her mother
lets Manon be self sufficient in New Orleans and she focuses much of her
wrath towards the runaway Sarah, expending great time, energy and money in
attempting to bring her back to Louisiana. Manon is very intelligent and
knows the system of plantation patriarchy curbs her freedom, but she is
unable to let her self see that Sarah is also a victim of her husband and
of society, and she obtains great joy and satisfaction in tracking Sarah
down and bringing her back to Louisiana.
Valerie Martin's book is smart and extremely well written. The story is
captivating, and is unlike anything I have ever read. Manon is complex;
you do not like her but you can feel the pain of her husband's betrayal and
the limitations society has placed on her. Ms. Martin effectively is able
to portray the brutality of slavery in the United States, while at the same
time and with the same skill shows how the system restricted white women.
The book was outstanding and I would recommend it without reservation.
Reviewed by misrich
on February 21, 2013
After reading 220 pages of one women's thoughts about her husband, her mother, her father, herself and the negroes they own as property, I'm exhausted. Its not that the book "Property" doesn't have lots of potential, it just seems to get caught inside a stuffy house and is never given a chance to run loose and free in the meadow.
If a writer is going to use primarily one voice to tell a memoir style story, best give the voice to a person an audience wants to hear tell it. What I wanted most by the end of this book was for that primary voice to just shut up and let someone else tell the story. Someone with a real story to tell. Its tiring to always read how someone felt about others actions. I'd rather be told how they reacted to others. "Property" lacked the vibrant action that its premise suggested.
Maybe a different style of writing would've made it more interesting and believable. Then again, maybe not!
Property is one of the most disarming novels set during pre-Civil War South. The year is 1828 in Louisiana. Manon Gaudet is a miserable woman who takes her frustrations out on her slave, Sarah. The fact that Sarah is Manon's husband's mistress (unwillingly) and the mother of his two children escalates her hatred and frustrations. Manon feels nothing but scorn for her unnamed husband and resents the fact that he allows his bastard children to freely run around the plantation. Sarah is subjected to all sorts of unspeakable abuse from her owner, but everything reaches a disarming head when a group of runaway slaves arrive at her estate. Sarah is able to escape, and Manon will do anything to extract revenge against the woman she believes has made her life miserable. There are various disarming twists throughout the novel.
This is a rather short novel, only a little over 200 pages long. However, it is so disarming, literary and thought provoking that you cannot help but want to read it in one single sitting and wish it had been longer. The backdrop of nineteenth century Louisiana is quite impressive and the occurrences of this shameful period in the southern states are quite palpable and disturbing. Manon will get on your nerves with her constant whining and wallowing, especially in the second half of the novel. Her struggles are quite understandable in a male-dominated time period, but despite the humanization of this character, you don't feel much compassion for her. Well, at least I felt no compassion for this woman. The things the slaves endure from their owners are quite disturbing and that's why I sometimes have a difficult time reading these historical novels set in the south. This book shows a rather different perspective from novels such as Gone with the Wind in which slaves are portrayed as being ignorant and conforming. Thank goodness for books such as these that show the darker side of this time period and setting. Valerie Martin is a very gifted author and I see why this novel won awards. I cannot recommend this gem enough.