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Review: Sue Monk Kidd takes risks in "Book of Longings' and succeeds

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The Book of Longings

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS. By Sue Monk Kidd. Viking. 407 pages. $28.

Long before she delved into the secrets of bees and black Madonnas, mermaids and monks, and Charleston’s own abolitionist sisters, Sue Monk Kidd wrote about finding her voice and claiming a feminine spiritual authenticity in her memoir, “Dance of the Dissident Daughter.”

In many ways this could be the subtitle for each of her four subsequent novels. In her latest, “The Book of Longings,” the delightfully dissident daughter is Ana, who hails from a wealthy Jewish family in Sepphoris and falls for, and eventually marries, a similarly dissident young man named Jesus.

While there are no bees in this secret life of Jesus’ wife, Kidd, a former Charleston resident, revisits many of the themes of her blockbuster debut, the 2002 “Secret Life of Bees.” Once again, the protagonist is a 14-year old girl on a heroine’s journey. Once again, this young girl confronts the brutality of a patriarchal society and finds wisdom, acceptance and strength in a sisterhood of women.

And as in all Kidd’s books, the honeyed prose is tangy-sweet and crafted with hive-like precision.

Though these themes of spiritual quest, the divine feminine, love, rebellion, and belonging are not new territory for Kidd, “The Book of Longings” demonstrates a welcomed maturity and mastery of historical fiction, even as she takes on a retelling of the greatest story ever told.

Ana’s deepest longing (like Kidd’s) is to be a writer, to find her voice and use it boldly. The prayer that she clings to asks God to “Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. ... When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”

Ana’s father is chief scribe to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of their region in Galilee — a man who understands both political power and the power of words. Having taught herself to read Hebrew, Ana cajoles him into hiring tutors so she could learn Greek and study philosophy, but her father is wary. Reading and writing is part of the male domain, as is pretty much everything else in first-century Palestine, as Kidd makes abundantly clear.

The early chapters can occasionally feel too heavy-handed both on this point and in establishing Ana as a rebellious spirit, but once the action begins unfolding, Kidd finds a natural narrative rhythm, revealing her characters in a way that feels less forced.

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Ana’s parents guard their status as a family of wealth and privilege, and intend that their defiant, spunky daughter will bow to convention and marry a man of similar wealth and standing. They arrange a betrothal to an older, bitter widower, Nathaniel, who has been cursed by fathering only daughters.

The impending marriage is horrifying to Ana, still a young teenager, for instead of becoming a voice, “I would become the forgotten wife of a horrid little man lusting for a son,” she realizes.

However, on an excursion to the market where she is to be presented to Nathaniel for the first time, she encounters a young man whose gaze falls on her “like a veil I could almost feel, the heat of it touching my shoulders, my neck, my cheeks. I should’ve looked away, but I could not.” This man whose eyes had “a tiny fire in them,” an expressiveness that was not judgmental but gentle and kind, was an 18-year old Jesus. Though they barely exchange words, a spark is lit that carries Ana through dark days ahead.

Kidd has done her homework. She dug into personal journals from travels to the Holy Land years ago, and did extensive research. She not only provides rich context of the rituals of daily life in a time and place most of us know only through simplistic Sunday school illustrations, she gives nuance and depth to the political realities that made Jesus’ teachings so provocative, and to the patriarchal systems that make characters like Ana’s fabulously fearless aunt Yaltha, her guiding star, so heroic.

But what I love most about “The Book of Longings” is Kidd’s sleight of hand, the way she weaves in marquee moments of Jesus’ life — the woman at the well, his anger at merchants in the temple, his baptism by John — and key bits from Scripture (“Let the one who is without sin cast the next stone”) into the broader story in a deceptively nonchalant way.

These familiar bits are like little cairns that you happen upon as you follow a larger, fresh narrative that is Ana’s journey to womanhood, as Jesus’ wife (after Nathaniel, thankfully, dies), and as her own person.

Jesus, who calls his beloved Ana “Little Thunder” and never comes off as pious or preachy, remains a more or less minor character throughout the novel. This is tricky business.

In “The Invention of Wings,” Kidd embellished the tale of the Grimké sisters by introducing the fictional Hetty, based on a documented slave girl who died at birth. The widely celebrated novel, which debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list and was an Oprah pick, showed Kidd’s fictional range and prose prowess.

The alternate history she attempts in “The Book of Longings” is even more daring. It takes some well-invented wings and then some to retell the Jesus story through a feminist lens. But Kidd succeeds. By focusing on the historical Jesus without delving into the Easter version of the risen Christ, she makes room for Ana to rise and to soar. Let it be said that Kidd, like her main character, is indeed “a voice.”

Reviewer Stephanie Hunt is a Lowcountry-based writer.

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