When I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press I discovered that best-selling authors could publish badly written books and hardly anyone seemed to notice. Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel The Secret Life of Bees spent one hundred weeks on the New York Times best seller list, which might explain why the editing seems spotty in The Book of Longings.
It’s a serious book about female empowerment told in the voice of Ana, the fictional wife of Jesus, but the first paragraph is filled with grotesque laugh lines and incongruities. Here’s how it starts:
I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.
“Little Thunder” sounds like some hokey name from a Grade B Hollywood Western in the 1950s, the kind where white people in dark makeup played Native Americans. It sets the completely wrong tone.
Ana goes on: He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, a sound like thunder from far over the Nahal Zippori valley or even farther beyond the Jordan.
It’s hard not to think of someone with serious stomach trouble after a line like that.
I don’t doubt he heard something. All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night.
If you’re writing a book set in the early years of the first century CE, it’s not a great idea to use a term that for many people might evoke music of the nineteenth century and Chopin. Piano nocturnes are melodic–they don’t “wail.”
Perhaps Ana is referring to prayer nocturnes (also spelled “nocturns”), but there was no Christian church in the years 16-17 when Ana is speaking, so prayers like that didn’t exist. They evolved much later, however you spell the word. So much for the “meticulous” research the publisher says the author did.
The comic factor increases at the end of the paragraph with these lines: That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him. What he heard was my life begging to be born.
Why is Jesus bending his heart and not his head to listen to his wife? And if Ana’s heart is making all that noise, she sounds seriously ill and needs to find a healer–though she could just as well ask Jesus for help. It was part of his skill set, after all.
I read a bit further out of morbid curiosity and met her aunt Yaltha, a character apparently inspired by Yalta, the wife of a rabbi who lived several hundred years later. The aunt is first called “educated,” but Kidd immediately contradicts that with a ridiculous image: “Her mind was an immense feral country that spilled its borders.”
Feral and educated are opposites, and how does a country spill its own borders? Was it a seismic event? A volcano turning rock into lava? Or was the aunt’s mind filled with feral pigs and that’s what was spilling across the border line? Could the image be a super-subtle reference to the miracle of the Gadarene swine that appears in the three Synoptic Gospels?
Probably not, and I was laughing too hard to read much further (though I also found significant errors in her portrayal of Jewish life in that period). Bad writing and bad research in the opening of a novel are not good omens. What else did the editor (and copy editor) miss?
Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications. He had his own book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Erica Jong and may other authors. Raphael is also the prize-winning author of twenty-seven books in many genres. The Library at Michigan State University collects his literary papers.