The Book of Longings was selected for our in-house book club to read and I heard good things about it from friends who had read it but I personally have read or heard nothing else about it. As I usually enjoy well-researched biblical fiction, I bought it and read it over several days. It has the potential, I think, to be controversial and possibly has been in various media but, as I have stated, I would be totally unaware of that. I came to it with no bias.
This is the story of Ana, daughter of Matthieas, head scribe and counsellor to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. She grew up in a grand house in Sepphoris in the first century with her parents, her adopted brother Judas, and later, her aunt, Yaltha, her father’s sister, who came to them banished from her home in Alexandria by her older brother, her only child taken from her, after being accused of poisoning her abusive husband .
From the beginning, Ana has had an aptitude for languages, writing, and studying. She has begged her father to have a tutor after teaching herself Hebrew and has studied the stories of matriarchs in the scriptures and written them out on “scrolled papyri, parchments, and scraps of silk” which she treasures in a carved cedar chest in her room. Telling the stories is her longing from deep within; it is her talent. It is a talent her father indulges and her mother despises. In an attempt to turn Ana from these activities, a playmate, Tabitha, is brought into the home in whom Ana at first sees nothing they share. However, they do eventually find a common ground and form a firm friendship. A friendship which will turn them both into outcasts of sorts.
Ana’s life is told in 5 sections. It begins in Sepphoris from 16-17 CE when her aunt, Yartha, has come to stay with them and opens Ana’s mind with her stories of Alexandria and of a Jewish community of philosophers called the Therapeutae. A brief encounter with Jesus in the marketplace where her parents are selling her into an unwanted marriage with a man she loathes begins a connection that becomes a part of her longings. Kidd uses the biblical story of Jesus saving a woman from stoning as the means of Jesus rescuing Ana from a violent crowd which then results in Jesus asking for her hand in marriage.
The story continues with Ana’s life with Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth from 17-27 CE, a time of great happiness despite a spiteful sister-in-law, disapproving brothers-in-law, and for a long while, an inability to obtain materials with which to write. Also, as the oldest son, Jesus is often absent finding work in order to support the family. Ana is reunited with Tabitha who has found refuge with Jesus’ friends in Bethany, Mary, Martha, & Lazarus. Eventually, Jesus is certain of his call to the ministry and Ana, who hears Herod is after her, accompanies her aunt to Alexandria where Yaltha hopes to find her missing daughter.
Kidd’s research seems to me flawless and her story very compelling. It contrasts Jesus attitude towards women with the common culture of the times and his relationship with Ana is touching, full of compassion. The confusion of the many gods and temples in Alexandria and the one God of the Jews must have been a very real one for young women just as the conflicting purpose of Jesus’ mission with that of the Zealots of whom his brother-in-law here was very real.
I had a bit of a problem with the portrayal of Jesus as not being aware of his divinity and being unclear of his calling for a time and also of having no recognition of John the Immerser as his own cousin. But as Kidd says in her Author’s Note,
It was clear to me from the beginning that I would portray Jesus as fully human. I wanted the story to be about Jesus the man and not God the Son, who he would become.
and keeping in mind that this is a work of fiction, I’m willing to allow a little latitude.
The story of Ana continues 30 years beyond the life of her beloved husband to when she is now the leader of the Therapeutae where she retreated after the crucifixion. It is told briefly, with sensitivity and joy. The story of Ana is told with exquisite writing and great detail as to the historical facts and the cruel treatment of women as chattels and sex objects to be abused and denied freedoms and education. It is a journey of triumph over obstacles and oppression for the women and an imagining of the very human side of Jesus of Nazareth. * * * * *
Other books by Sue Monk Kidd:
The Secret Life of Bees
The Mermaid Chair
The Invention of Wings
Traveling with Pomegranates
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter
When the Heart Waits