Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Sue Monk Kidd has never run short on imagination in her books, and her latest work, The Book of Longings, yet again bears testament to this. Set in the first century during the Roman occupation of Israel, the novel borrows some elements from history to tell the story of Ana, who is determined to give a voice to the other silenced women of her times while trying to carve a most difficult path for her own fulfillment.
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Sue Monk Kidd Remoulds the First Century to her Liking
History, though it may have been a boring subject in school for many, is something we generally learn to appreciate as we get older for various reasons. There are numerous reasons why historical backdrops are used quite often in works of fiction, and I believe the most important one is their ability to draw us in and add impact to the story by virtue of connecting it with people whom existed and events which actually transpired. Though it might sound counter-intuitive, there are no real guidelines or limitations as to how authors can make use of history in their novels, as we’re about to see in The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd.
The story takes place in the first century, starting off in Galilee and introducing us to Ana, daughter of a wealthy family with ties to the ruler of the region. She is to be married off to an old widower, a prospect which certainly doesn’t excite her, especially after she meets the eighteen-year-old Jesus by chance at the market. Due to a perhaps fortunate turn of events, Ana’s betrothed doesn’t live for very long, and after marrying Jesus, they go off to live with his brother’s family in Nazareth.
Despite the marriage having ultimately gone her way, Ana isn’t content with spending the remainder of her days as a housewife, with a passionate and rebellious soul burning inside of her. She longs to make a difference in the world, to give a voice to the silenced women of her time, and if she can along the way, to resist the Roman occupation of Israel. It’s only a matter of time before Ana’s life is in peril due to her own shameless actions, and thus greater dangers begin to pursue her as her life veers increasingly towards the unexpected.
A Heavily Modernized History in The Book of Longings
When writing a historical novel, every author must make the decision as to how accurate they want to be in regards to reality. They can go anywhere from simply drawing inspiration from history to recreating it as faithfully as our present knowledge allows it, and I believe every approach has its merits… so long as the reader knows what they are getting into. As you might have guessed from the short synopsis of the premise, this book pertains more to the category of heavily fictionalized rather than accurate history.
Anger is effortless. Kindness is hard. Try to exert yourself.― Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings
If you’re going into this book expecting a true retelling of first-century history, then I will have to disappoint you because this novel is modernized and fictionalized in more than a few ways, but none stand out as much as Ana’s character. From a purely historical perspective, her behaviour is very much out of time and place, starting with her objection to an arranged marriage, which to my understanding was very much an accepted norm in those times.
The way Ana thinks and acts is basically what you would expect from a modern woman time-traveling from today’s world into the past, and to me this alone pushes this book far more in the direction of fiction than historical accuracy.
With this all being said, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing if the author doesn’t make any pretenses or false promises. Sue Monk Kidd is extremely honest about her manipulation of history in The Book of Longings, going so far as to include addendums to explain the events which are depicted incorrectly for the sake of her story.
I have to applaud her for this choice and can only hope more authors will follow in her suit. In addition, she did do a certain amount of research and has inserted accurate historical details where she saw appropriate, so the novel isn’t completely bereft of them either.
Thriller of Ancient Times
With the discussion of historical accuracy hopefully behind us, I think it’s time we take a look at the novel’s most important feature: the plot. Because of the liberty the author has taken with the novel’s historical fidelity, it’s difficult as a reader to try and predict outcomes or character decisions, which in turn tends to make them more surprising when we get to them. I’m all for unpredictability as long as its implemented in a sensical way throughout the story, and for the most part it stands true for The Book of Longings.
I tried for so long to belong, to be as they needed me to be. Now I wish to be myself.― Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings
The story moves along at a relatively quick pace, something which only becomes increasingly true as we advance further into the book. There are many instances where I am almost given the feeling to be reading a thriller set in ancient times, and I was pleasantly surprised at the complexity of the developments Kidd managed to weave into the plot. There is constantly some kind of danger lurking, or some new developments to keep us occupied, and as a result I can’t say I’ve experienced more than a couple dull moments, which themselves weren’t very long.
In addition, the book also has some displays of depth to it, especially in relation to Ana and her examination as Jesus’ imaginary wife. Basically, the author poses the question as to what this woman would have been like had she actually existed. It’s definitely a captivating premise, even if simply used as nothing more than an exercise in intellectual curiosity.
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Kidd goes quite far in her examination of the character, to the point where we end up knowing the most intimate things about Ana, such as her personal relation with the Almighty and the core of the reasons which drove her line. In the end, she feels no less of an important character in this novel than her eternally-remembered husband.
The Final Verdict
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd is an excellent work of historical fiction, so long as you remember the accent is heavily placed on the “fiction” part. It offers a captivating and eventful plot, a protagonist many can relate to and won’t soon forget, and a setting rife with opportunities for discovery and exploration. If the premise of imagining Jesus’ wife in the setting of an ancient-times thriller interests you even a little bit, then I suggest you take this book into real consideration.
VIDEO: Author Talks | Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings
Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd is an American author and graduate from the Texas Christian University, as well as a lifelong student in creative writing, having taken courses at Emory University and Anderson College, among other places.
Her first published novel, The Secret Life of Bees, was a bestseller, and her future works have lived up to the quality she established for herself, including Who the Heart Waits and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter.