I recommend this historical novel about two researchers who discover a cache of letters from the 1660s about a rabbi in London and the young Jewish woman he’s taken in, Ester Velasquez. The rabbi and Ester have emigrated from Amsterdam, but before that they were refugees from the Inquisition in Portugal. The researchers soon discover something interesting: Ester is the rabbi’s scribe, even though writing was forbidden for Jewish women at this time.
This is a book about philosophy and religion, but it’s primarily a book about a young woman who wants only to be able to write and study like a man. She’s expected to keep house and make a decent marriage, but she can’t stop herself from studying the books in the rabbi’s library. At the same time, Ester must deal with bigger issues, like poverty, religious oppression, and the plague. Ester is without family and she’s completely dependent on the charity of others.
This book has been compared to Possession and People of the Book – I think the Possession comparison is more apt, because this book is written like a literary mystery, where a pair of modern day researchers are trying to uncover the past. They have to put a limited set of pieces together to figure out what these people were like and how they lived.
In many ways this is a fairly traditional historical novel. It’s told in two parallel storylines, the present (around 2000) and the 1660’s. Some of this story will feel like it’s been done before. But it’s beautifully written with complex themes, so the characters and their stories never feel like tropes.
Nowhere in the known world, it seemed to her, could she live as she’d been created: at once a creature of body and of mind. It was a precept so universal as to seem a law of nature: one aspect of a woman’s existence must dominate the other. And a woman like Ester must choose, always, between desires: between fealty to her own self, or to the lives she might bring forth and nurture.
Like many dual-timeline books, here the historical story is much more interesting. But the modern-day characters are well-developed, and I liked the way this book is as much about their research as it is about their own personal issues. Helen is an almost-retired professor who studies Jewish history, and Aaron is her assistant. Helen is struggling with Parkinson’s disease; she’s crusty and closed. Aaron is arrogant (he’s good looking and knows it) but also insecure about his scholarship and future career. Both are irritating at times. Aaron, especially, is self-centered and maddeningly passive. He’s the kind of guy who constantly tells himself to be better, and then doesn’t. And yet I found both sympathetic, and I enjoyed the friendship they develop over time. I enjoyed Kadish’s comments on English and American sensibilities as these two had to learn to work together.
Similarly, Ester and her companions are also well-developed, and this story is interesting from start to finish, even when it involves lengthy letters about religion and philosophy. The rabbi, his housekeeper Rivka, and Ester’s companion Mary were particular interesting. I found the historical backdrop fascinating, and as a Jew I was really interested in exploring the history of Jews in this time period. Ester’s struggle is compelling, and I identified with her need to read and write, at all costs. I’ve always felt the same, especially when I was younger. Of course, I don’t live in a time or culture where it’s forbidden to me.
Some readers will find this book dry, but I didn’t. I felt it had just enough balance among religion, research, and personal drama to keep me interested throughout. I also loved the broad scope of the story. I takes place primarily in London over about a few years, but the story also takes us to Israel, the U.S., Portugal and Amsterdam.
Indeed, for the first time in her life she almost could see her heart, and to her astonishment it seemed a brave and hopeful thing: a small wooden cup of some golden liquid, brimming until it spilled over all…
One small downside was that I felt this book went on a little too long at the end. I’m not a fan of books that try to tie up all threads, and this one tried a little too hard to do that, although Kadish still leaves a lot unresolved. This was a fantastic story and Ester was a really compelling character. I would recommend this for anyone who’s interested in reading about “literary research”, philosophy, Judaism, and the 17th century.
It’s also a great book about reading and writing in general. If you’re someone, like me, who loves a good book about books, you should take a look at this one.
This book meets my 20 Books of Summer challenge.