The Book of Longings: A Novel
“The Book of Longings is well named, well inspired, and well imagined—a superlative effort from a writer at the top of her game.”
The Book of Longings tells a sweeping story that has never been told: of a woman named Ana, who might have been the wife of Jesus. She begins with the sound of rumbling that Jesus heard in her while they slept together, a thunder, or “my life begging to be born.”
And yet, the Jesus quoted in the bible, the Jesus who is conjured in the hearts of billions of Christians, this Jesus has been assumed to have been celibate. In all the places He’s been brought to life—the bible, the scriptures, the endless repetitions of his adventures passed down from generation to generation, his teachings, his words, his miracles—among all these stories, there is no record of a woman who might have been his wife. It’s a testimony to the strength of patriarchy that few to date have dared to imagine this blasphemous scenario.
But novelist Sue Monk Kidd takes on this high concept challenge and gives it her best. She does her homework many times over in all directions, digging for and finding many details that paint a vivid picture not only of Jesus the man, but the interwoven intricacies of the natural, political and religious world surrounding Jesus prior to his ministry. As part of this world, we see Jesus, a young man meeting Ana as a young woman, both of them recognizing that spark in the other, and falling in love. It’s an intriguing premise, but the best part is that this story is told from the point of view of a woman.
We first meet Ana at 14 years old, learning the meaning of an incantation bowl at the hands of her aunt, Yaltha. Already Ana is full of rebellion and ambition that the sexist world of the time does not allow. Her aunt’s “mouth was the wellspring of thrilling and unpredictable utterances,” says Ana, as they sneak out of the house up onto the roof and Ana learns about “Jewish women who led synagogues, studied with philosophers, wrote poetry and owned houses. Egyptian queens. Female pharaohs. Great Goddesses.” Ana’s ambition is to write stories about women. “We know from her opening narrative that this girl will not only encounter Jesus, but that she is also trouble with a capital ‘T.’”
In a distressing parallel to today’s world where in many countries women are not allowed to learn to read and write, Ana’s “audacities” were reed pens, a writing board, vials of ink, other writing tools as well as the fierce passion to have a voice.
The daughter of a wealthy counselor to the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, Ana has spent her young life cajoling her way into literacy. Initially Matthias had a soft spot for his daughter. “My father suggested that while God was busy knitting me together in my mother’s womb, He’d become distracted and mistakenly endowed me with gifts destined for some baby boy,” says Ana as she explains how he reluctantly gave into his daughter’s begging to be tutored. Although a member of the privileged class, Ana’s troubles are inherent in her gender and throughout the book, her life is threatened not only by her rebellious spirit, but by the many ways women were kept under control simply because of their sex.
In this practically perfect historic novel that fits the well-documented events of Jesus’ life into a very believable narrative, there are many parallels to the distressing reality of women’s status in the world today. Yet there is also a section of the work that is thoroughly ordinary and satisfying to read: the years Ana has with her husband after they marry. Their relationship seems so plausible and it’s easy to imagine Jesus, a kind and truly empathetic soul, who has the utmost respect, admiration, and genuine affection for his feisty bride. Christians who have tried to imagine what Jesus must have been like will come away reassured by Kidd’s portrait. The sense of longing that she creates between these two souls as they endure many forced separations bears testament to the novel’s title and makes for an emotional journey.
Particularly intriguing for those who know all the biblical stories: Ana’s adopted brother is Judas! This alone would have you reading on to see how that could be so, but the novel itself is so well told, with so many believable details and convolutions that you have to stay on board just to see how it all devolves. Details of the times, the scripture, the politics, the attitudes bring to a new focus the context of a story we’ve all heard thousands of times.
Anyone who reads this novel will feel the impending doom inherent in this historic tale. So artfully does Kidd involve the reader with the vibrance and passion of Ana, of the hazard she experiences in a man’s world, of her determined persona and her love for Jesus - that by the time she reunites with her beloved after a long absence, as he struggles barefoot and bleeding with an enormous wooden cross on his back, there is little to buffer feelings of loss and tragedy and sorrow.
The Book of Longings is well named, well inspired, and well imagined—a superlative effort from a writer at the top of her game.