Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Published April 2020 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
In her mesmerizing fourth work of fiction, Sue Monk Kidd takes an audacious approach to history and brings her acclaimed narrative gifts to imagine the story of a young woman named Ana. Raised in a wealthy family with ties to the ruler of Galilee, she 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. Ana is expected to marry an older widower, a prospect that horrifies her. An encounter with eighteen-year-old Jesus changes everything.
Their marriage evolves with love and conflict, humor and pathos in Nazareth, where Ana makes a home with Jesus, his brothers, and their mother, Mary. Ana's pent-up longings intensify amid the turbulent resistance to Rome's occupation of Israel, partially led by her brother, Judas. She is sustained by her fearless aunt Yaltha, who harbors a compelling secret. 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.
Anytime you write a fictionalized account of Jesus' life in the unknown years, you've risked alienating a whole group of readers. When you decide to give him a wife, you are, as they publisher's summary says audacious. When you take it even a step further and suggest that Jesus did not grow up believing he was the son of God, you've ventured into territory that could really upset some people. I mean, it's not The Last Temptation of Christ but it could certainly be considered controversial.
I spent a lot of time at the Presbyterian church up the street from us when I was younger; I grew up with the story of Jesus. What we're taught about him is, in my mind, mostly incontrovertible. So, even though I'm more what I would call spiritual rather than religious these days, I confess to having had problems with the liberties Monk Kidd took in the story of Jesus. I'm not opposed to filling in those missing years; I'm not even opposed to making him a little more questioning or giving him a wife. I think what I struggled with was the idea that, while Jesus was faithful (although struggling with that), his movement was more akin to the teaching of Martin Luther King than God, the idea that change in the government could be made through peaceful means.
It wasn't the only thing I struggled with in this book. Do you ever watch action movies, where everything bad that could happen, does happen? This book felt like that to me. Ana's mother doesn't like her, her father sells her off in marriage then tries to barter her off as a concubine. She has only one friend who is brutalized and banished, most of her in-laws don't much care for her, and her uncle confines her to the house for a year and a half. All of that and we already know how things are going to end for her brother and her husband.
I always want to love passionate, intelligent women in books. I wanted to love a character who fought back, who told the stories of women and stood up to men. Early on, It's not that I didn't like Ana. She was a strong young woman who stood up for what she believed, admitted her faults, and wore her passion on her sleeve. But it so often felt like her story got lost in all of the dramatic events and Jesus' story.
I loved The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings. I felt certain that Monk Kidd could take this idea and create something that would impress me. I wish it had. I do recommend, if you read it, reading her notes at the back about why she wrote it and her research. It truly is a well-researched book.