Review: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
I've talked before about my feelings on 'life books' - and I feel like The Book of Longings neatly encapsulates everything that I find tricky about the subgenre.
Any book that takes as its narrative sweep an entire lifetime, by its very nature, loses some of the momentum and stakes you get from one discrete event as the centerpiece. What was especially jarring about this particular book is that the central character is Ana, who is the daughter of a rich scribe in Roman-occupied Judea and her eventual marriage with this little guy called Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth, and how she reconciles her desire to be a writer with her love for Jesus, her complicated relationship with her very conservative parents, her adoptive brother Judas, and her love for her aunt. And, ultimately, this book suffers from what all books of the kind suffer from, even as its premise is by far the most interesting - there is too much happening for anything to feel significant or meaningful.
Each of the chunks of the book that Kidd tries to cram in could have served as a novel in and of themselves - the relationship between Ana and her father, and her father's relationship with Herod Antipas, and Ana's relationship with Antipas's wife could have been a fascinating book by itself. The way Ana and Phaesalis bond over being women who love to write in a world where most women aren't taught to read; the way Ana went toe to toe with her father to be given access to tutors, papyrus and ingredients for ink - all of that would have been fascinating, and offered such potential for character development; but it all got kind of brushed over and sped through to get to the next milestone marker of the book, and the next.
That was my same problem with her relationship with Jesus - they met twice, exchanged maybe three sentences, he saved her from a stoning and they get married. The entire relationship is sped through, as is the marriage and Ana's relationship with Jesus's family. There was so much there - Jesus himself was such an interesting, human character, and watching him devolve into his ministry through Ana's eyes was fascinating. And yes, I know that this story is meant to be Ana's story, and her philosophizing about how her life choices fit in alongside his, and how difficult she found it to adapt her ambitions to is and how brutally unfair she felt it was - all of it was fascinating, and melancholy, and emotional, and there was so much there that we just never got to properly delve into it because we had to hurry along to the next Big Life Event. And this was particularly infuriating because the writing around Ana's relationship with Jesus was just exquisite - the grief of her stillbirth, the complexity of readjusting her life to the expectations of a mother-in-law and a husband, the little moments of building a partnership, the way Ana (who more than anything else) wanted to be a voice gets completely erased from Jesus's story - all of it is heartbreaking and raw and so vividly, beautifully written. And we don't get to spend any time with it because there's too much else to talk about!
Same gripe about Ana and her aunt's time in Egypt, and the trials and tribulations of her adventures in Alexandria - which again, could have been their own fucking book, and instead just get relegated to a deus ex machina chunk of the book as an excuse to get Ana away from Judea while Jesus is starting to preach. I think this was an excuse to center Ana away from Jesus's main story to try and really drive home the point that Ana gets erased from Jesus's narrative and that's the real tragedy; but it doesn't work for me at all - the reason Ana isn't there seems flimsy to me at best, and the fact that she manages to make it back in time for Jesus's crucifixion just to see him die kind of reinstates that getting her to Alexandria is an excuse to lay the ultimate tragedy of her life. Wouldn't a story about Jesus's wife be more compelling if we'd actually seen the way she was actively a part of his story and was actively erased, instead of always existing on the periphery? She was a writer. The story of her being the first writer of his words and then being co-opted by the more palatable disciples is way more compelling (to me at least) of "well there was a wife but since she wasn't really there, it was really easy for all of us to forget she existed".
And, ultimately, Ana wasn't really the most compelling of characters - there was a lot of her talking about how stubborn and full of longings she was, but I couldn't actually see any signs of that, other than her willfully and wantonly going against the rules of the time by deciding she was going to be a writer (which I do respect, not going to lie). But it did seem like an awful lot of what was meant to be her character development and personality hinged on one single trait, and all the other things about her that could have made her interesting had to be completely sublimated to that one main personality trait. In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, it seemed like Sue Monk Kidd had put so much effort into making Jesus multi-dimensional and richly layered in a way that he has not been in the two millennia we've read his story, that there was nothing left over for Ana.
The writing in this, however, was absolutely lovely - lyrical and smooth, and the images Sue Monk Kidd can conjure up in your mind were precise, and absolutely exquisite. Each scene was set with the precision and detail of a painting, and a magnificent one at that. Some of the descriptions, of the way Ana would write or would go about her daily life, I could very easily picture as a Caravaggio painting. And the world-building is excellent: everything is done in detail, but nothing is overwrought or overblown; you lose yourself in the story and can picture the setting without the setting being shoved in your face as This Is a Historical Fiction! in the way that some authors do (see my thoughts on Dorothy Dunnett's world-building).
All in all, this book was a very beautiful piece of writing that falls a bit flat because it tries to do too much. But it's a good, interesting story with some definitely delightful nuggets in there - so overall, definitely worth reading.