Book Review: The Book of Longings

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Raised in a wealthy family with ties to the ruler of Galilee, Ana is rebellious and ambitious, with a brilliant mind and a daring spirit. She engages in furtive scholarly pursuits and writes narratives about neglected and silenced women. An encounter with eighteen-year-old Jesus changes everything.

Her marriage to the devout Jesus evolves with love and conflict, humor and pathos. In Nazareth, Ana makes a home with Jesus, his brothers, and their mother, Mary. but Ana’s pent-up longings intensify amid the turbulent resistance to Rome’s occupation of Israel, partially led by her brother, Judas.

When Ana commits a brazen act that puts her in peril, she flees to Alexandria, where startling revelations and greater dangers unfold, and she finds refuge in unexpected surroundings. Ana determines her fate during a stunning convergence of events considered among the most impactful in human history: the life and death of her husband Jesus.

Amazon/Me

This is my SPOILER FREE book review for The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

I intend to use the ***ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.



Atmosphere

The book takes place in the ancient world, specifically during the “time of Jesus” which is a not precise date but will give you the basic sense. There are Romans, goats, sandals, scrolls, and papyrus… clear distinctions between men and women’s work, hierarchical systems of oppression, Greek and Egyptian and Jewish historical names and places… and a lot of what I am going to call “Biblical Easter Eggs” (double funny because of what Easter is Bibcially, yes… I make my own fun.

Writing Style

It is a first-person narration book that reads like a memoir. Despite the obvious placement of the characters and plot points in a cultural context that is not current or American (author Kidd is American) there are hardly any “foreign” words or phrases. With the exception of the geographic and historic notes, this reads very much like a contemporary novel. Like her other novels, the writing style is direct. There is not a lot of overly descriptive passages but we are given enough details to round out the world. I do wish there had been more descriptions because what we did get were done well. 

Plot/Pacing

This is pretty much a historical fiction memoir about a woman named Ana. The book covers the portion of her life where most of her life happened with an epilogue of her final years tacked onto the end. 

Now, if you are a back of the book blurb reader, you probably know that Ana is not just a woman in the 1st century. She is the wife of Jesus. So there is no way to leave Jesus and his life (his plot) out of her book. At least you might think so.

Actually, Jesus is not in most of the book. Yes, he is her husband, and yes he does a few of the Jesus-things you might expect if you have even a passing acquaintance with the Christian faith. 

But thankfully, at least in my opinion, this is Ana’s story. It is the story of a woman trapped in her time who wants to be more than a wife and mother and homemaker. She wants to write and to have her words matter and live beyond her. She wants to be a voice. Most of the plot centers around her attempts at bucking the patriarchal system, finding herself, outwitting the men who try to control her, and living/writing her life. 

Characters

Ana is a feminist in the first century who wants to be a voice not just for herself but for all the women whose stories are forgotten, ignored, or hidden. I really liked Ana and totally commiserate with her plight. Her struggle between society expectations vs what she longed to do with her life… felt very familiar. 

Personal Note1: I used to be a Christian and one of the things that led me away from my faith was a woman’s devotional called “Women of the Bible” geared to Christian women. THe book was supposed to give us life lessons about how to be a good Christian woman with stories of biblical women serving as inspiration. More than half the women in the stories either had no name “the woman at the well” or were named for their relationship to men “Lot’s Wife” and all of their stories seemed to center on the men rather than the women and how being a good Christian woman really meant being docile, subservient, meek, and taking a back seat to what the men wanted and needed. I was in college, in the process of coming out, in the process of discovering feminism, and working through some trauma… this book was not for me. I swung pretty hard away from male-dominated Christianity and into the lovingly warm feminine embrace of Paganism. (I was a Goddess worshiping pagan for years and even now I identify as an agnostic pagan.)

Why am I telling you this? Because Ana’s drive to tell the life stories of women, the forgotten or never heard… struck a chord with me. I love, love love, her desire to bear witness to these women and their tragic sufferings. 

More than any other part of this book, this was the part I liked.

Ok…. couldn’t have a section on “characters” and not talk about Jesus. But hang on, first I want to say that his mother Mary, the infamous Judas, and a whole bunch of other New Testament people show up in this book as well. While interesting and usually there to service the plot, none of them are really overly fleshed out. Ana’s aunt Yaltha is the exception to this rule…. She is vibrant and wonderful. We all should be so lucky as to have a Yaltha in our corner.

I do want to talk about how Jesus is portrayed but I am going to save it for the next section.

Entertaining/Would I recommend it?

Yes. I was motivated to keep reading. There were times when I was excited or worried for the characters. However. 

What mainly kept me reading was the question: How is Kidd going to handle Jesus? Will Kidd take a stand on if Jesus was really The Son of God, The Lord, The Messiah? What will Ana think when he starts doing miracles…. Will he do miracles? How is Kidd going to handle the crucifixion and resurrection story? Is this more of a secular humanist thing where he was a great teacher with no supernatural powers? Won’t that alienate Christian readers?

The answer, without spoiling… is. She cheated. 

On the one hand, this isn’t a book about Jesus, but his inclusion is a very big deal and a pretty important part of the narrative… and also probably a huge draw for publishers and readers. 

So, two perspectives here

Me: A NonChristian/Nonbeliever: I felt cheated and slightly betrayed. Which makes me disappointed because the writing is beautiful, the story is important and resonates, and the historical aspects were super interesting. It worked…. But also? I felt tricked somehow.

My mother: A Christian/Believer: “I found it fascinating. I thought it a bit disappointing that she [Kidd] completely ignored [censored to keep spoiler free], I did love Anna and the telling of women’s stories that so often get overlooked.”

So is this book for you?

Hard to say, but here are a few facts that might help you decide.

This is not a Christian book. There is no proselytizing 

It doesn’t really matter if you are a believer or not. 

It is historical fiction, heavy on the fiction.

Some people might call this “historical fan fiction.”

I, for one, am glad I read it even if I feel like Kidd relied a bit too much on the Jesus schtick rather than letting her writing and superb storytelling carry the day. (And they really really could have carried the day.)

Why THIS book?

My mother told me it was interesting and I should read it. This was one of the few recommendations she has ever given me. 

If THIS, Then THATThis is not going to be a regular thing. But. If you, like me, enjoyed The Red Tent or The Dovekeepers…. You will probably like this book.


*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)

A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.

S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?

P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?

E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?

C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?

T This? Why did I read *This* book?


Thank you for your support!


Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments or send me an email.


Published by kayliametcalfe

Queer,loudmouth,skeptical-agnostic-pagan,book addict,coffee lover,wine drinker, SAHM,writer,editor,producer,podcaster. -She/her

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