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Book Review: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

Book Review by Wendy Stanley
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, 2020

“All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night. That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him.”

This begins The Book of Longings, story of Ana, wife of Jesus, in the first century. [Review continued by clicking Read More after the image below.]

We meet Ana when she is fourteen. She lives with her parents in Sepphoris, near Galilee. Ana longs to be different, to write, and fills valuable papyri with stories of the women in the Bible, wishing their lives and experiences to be preserved for perpetuity. Her efforts are not appreciated by her scheming family. Her mother, alarmed and disgusted by Ana’s longings, plans for her daughter’s immediate marriage. Her father, head scribe to Sepphoris ruler and tetrarch Herod Antipas, who is an ambitious and dangerous man, plans to profit from Ana’s matrimony. Ana’s brother Judas, disgusted with the corruption of Rome, is in open rebellion against Herod Antipas, her father’s employer.

Ana find allies in her aunt Yaltha, newly returned from liberal Alexandria, who encourages and protects her dreams, and her servant Lavi, who becomes Ana’s friend during difficult times.

After narrowly avoiding being married to the odious man forced on her by her parents, Ana’s heart is captured by a stonemason and carpenter called Jesus who she first meets by chance in the market. Ana confides in Jesus and tells him of her secret writings, which she has hidden in a cave, and of her longing to continue to write and study. Drawn to each other, Ana and Jesus marry and move to Nazareth to live with Jesus’ mother and extended family. They take Yaltha with them.

After years of poverty and hard work in Nazareth, Ana finds herself in trouble with Herod Antipas, who has ordered her arrest for warning his own wife of his plot against her. To escape harm, Jesus encourages Ana to journey to Alexandria in Egypt with Yaltha to request the protection of her uncle Haran until she can safely return to Nazareth. The two women will travel under the protection of Lavi, Ana’s male friend and servant. Once in Alexandria, Yaltha hopes to find her the daughter that was taken from her years before.

While separated from his wife, Jesus takes up his ministry in Galilee. He has been deeply affected by the spiritual work of John the Immerser, as well as his own calling to a journey of faith.

After two years in Egypt, Ana receives word that it is time to go home. She can finally return to Jesus, who is waiting eagerly for her in Jerusalem. Leaving Yaltha in Egypt, Ana rushes to be reunited with her husband, only to find that she and Lavi are too late. Jesus has been betrayed. Ana is powerless to stop his fate, as well as her own.

For the rest of her life, Ana pursues scholarship, continuing to write and study, hoping to give women a voice. She is faithful to the passion and longing that has driven her and compelled her to write tirelessly throughout her life.

I have deliberately left gaps in this review so the reader can be as swept away as I was. The Book of Longings is a beautifully written book, but just as striking, it is incredibly brave. I knew as soon as I read it that critics would look to the Bible and criticize Sue Monk Kidd for discrepancies, waggling their fingers in disapproval and admonishment at departure from scripture. It’s important to remember that this is a work of historical fiction, a novel. The author was driven by a single thought: What if Jesus had a wife? “The aim of the novelist is not only to hold up a mirror to the world, but to imagine what’s possible,” writes Monk Kidd in the Author’s Note.

Through imagination, we can leave this world for another. Through imagination, we can time travel, be astounded and astonished and aggravated and upset. And we can debate these new worlds created for us in fiction, which gives us a chance to explore the past and the here and now. And maybe dream a little. How sad it would be if we were bound by fact in artistry.

The Book of Longings transported me to the Middle East in the first century. I could see the fig trees, smell the donkeys, taste the pomegranates, hear the haunting notes of the lyre from where I was lying on the roof of the house in Nazareth, right alongside the main characters.

Sue Monk Kidd has a talent for simple prose that is laced with beauty: When I closed my eyes, there were blurs of lights like stars falling…My mother’s sigh was like a squall of wind…Silence, but this time it lit upon us like something winged.

If you are a fan of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, you will love The Book of Longings. I was captivated by Ana’s voice and the flutter of Sue Monk Kidd’s imagination.

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Wendy Long Stanley is a writer of historical fiction. Her first novel, The Power to Deny, is now widely available. Wendy was born in England, grew up in Canada, and became a U.S. citizen in 2017. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and two teenage daughters.