Saturday, June 6, 2020

Review: The Book of Longings

The Book of Longings The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are a fan of myth retellings or Biblical tale reimaginings, this is likely a book for you. Sue Monk Kidd also takes the material she wrote a memoir about over a decade ago and uses it in this novel. That memoirhad an impact on me when I first read it so the connection - The Dance of the Dissident Daughter - about her discovery of Gnosticism, feminist spirituality, and how that changed her perspective of her own faith. It was easy for me to see how those ideas are wound through this novel.

Okay, so if that didn't scare you away, I feel I should also say that you will get more out of this book the more you know about the Biblical/Historical Jesus. But many who know a lot about that may be turned off by the idea of Jesus having a wife. The author addresses this very well in the back of the book, and I would encourage reading that if it is something you are not sure about. She acknowledges which things she changed from the traditional Biblical narrative, which things she borrowed from other places, and which came from her own mind. If anything, Kidd is a master of threading her research into her stories. I read The Thunder: Perfect Mind first when I read Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels so I definitely recognized it when it came up in this story; I was relieved to see her credit it and explain where it comes from after the end of the novel.

That is a lot of overture and caveat, but any reader of Sue Monk Kidd should not be surprised by feminist underpinnings to this novel. It is about Ana, the wife of Jesus, from her childhood to later in life. Ana begs her father to allow her to learn how to read and write so in an era of expensive parchment and lack of education for women, she learns how to read and write, and in more than one language. Learning and writing, inspiration and calling are all important themes in the book as Ana navigates feeling called while also being told it isn't appropriate (from her family) or possible (once she is married and much poorer) by the people around her.

And what do you do with a woman who believes she has something to say? I enjoyed the thought experiment of such a woman and what the man Jesus (based on a blending of Biblical text and historical documents) would have done with such a wife. I kind of hate that I enjoyed it but growing up in fundamentalism it's pretty hard not to want to imagine the what if's from the women excluded from stories.

The other thing that I think Kidd does very well is the way she weaves in the stories of the New Testament into Ana's story but gives them a little twist. The first time this is hinted at is when Ana visits the temple in Jerusalem, but you really see different contexts for the stoning ("let he who is without sin cast the first stone"), the "Good Samaritan," and that's just the beginning.

Ana loves Jesus, but she only really knows him as a kind man, who has a calling of his own. The way they release each other into that calling is an incredible act of love, but she never sees him as magical Jesus; she never sees any miracles for instance. There are reasons for this in the text but I like how it gives her a very specific personal version of him, and she loves him.

I had a copy of this from the publisher through Edelweiss; it came out April 21, 2020.

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