by Justine Johnston Hemmestad
I found The Book of Longings to ultimately be a love story between the permanence and power of writing, and the finite life of a young woman named Ana, fringed by those her love story impacts. Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, has written a historically captivating book that I couldn’t put down (ancient history lover that I am). I was completely enthralled by the history, by the surroundings in which the story is set, and by becoming saturated within first century Jewish customs and life. I love to read a book like this and actually feel like I’ve been transported into the story as though it’s happening in real time. Details of the era and place flow throughout the story, like, “It was the first day of the month of Tishri, but the cool fall rains had not yet come.” Carefully chosen words and sentences that reflect the era, obviously the product of meticulous research, allows me to be a first-person witness to Israel in the Herodian period, setting the mood for the writing and story of Ana, herself.
Whereas The Red Tent entrenches the reader in the nomadic life of a tent dwelling/compound, The Book of Longings takes the reader to a well-to-do house in Sepphoris, with Ana’s mother, her father, her adopted brother, and her aunt. Her father is head scribe to Herod Antipas, and through him Ana is tutored and provided the tools she needs to write. She also asserts that in her father’s Greek-loving house, what mattered was the appearance of keeping Judaic laws. However, like in The Red Tent, the women of the story claim centrality, and like in The Red Tent, details of time and place make the story come alive. But while the matriarchs in The Red Tent pass their stories on verbally, Ana intends to pass the truth of those matriarchs on in her writing, for she says that “A woman’s holy of holies are longings.” Her goal is to give voice to this holiness.
She first admits that “My parents’ stories found their way into the flesh of my flesh and the bone of my bone,” alluding to the perspective of her tale. However, she seems to push back on that as though to balance foundation with enlightenment; she knows that “To be ignored, to be forgotten, this was the worst sadness of all,” and she’s rectifying this wrong on behalf of all women. She lives through her words and is emboldened by them, and she finds a sense of power in her scrolls. “The act itself of writing evoked powers, often divine, but sometimes unstable, that entered the letters and sent a mysterious animating force rippling through the ink.”
The parts of the book that include Jesus relate him as a typical Jewish man of the time, accentuated by Jewish customs, and serves more as a window to history rather than an overwrite of religiosity – one can clearly read that he’s a character. To me, he’s so far removed from the Biblical Jesus that I had didn’t have a problem at all reading him as the character Jesus, a special man with “expressive eyes.” The author provides this flexibility to read him as a character and does not demand belief as intricate to the story.
The bigger twist of the story resides in Ana’s adopted brother, Judas, a Zealot, of whom she says, “In my fourteen years I’d never had a true and constant friend, only Judas…” Judas is the most multi-dimensional, interesting character of the book, easily allowing for temporality within carefully crafted words. Ana says that “Judas had been a troubled and broken-hearted child and needed an extra portion of his mother’s love,” even in the face of her mother’s seeming animosity toward her. She adds that Judas had suffered from ‘messianic fever’ since he was a boy, a phenomenon that affects almost everyone in the Galilee and possibly foreshadows the story to come.
Ana is fourteen when she introduces herself and is strapped by the weighted awareness that the only reason she was born was to prevent her mother from being cast out. Within this frame of mind, she first sees a young peasant man on a family trip to the market in Sepphoris, where she also learns of her betrothal to the ostentatious Nathaniel ben Hananiah. As though to edify herself, she watches the peasant man help his sister spin colorful strands of yarn between his hands. She’s intrigued and wonders, “What manner of man assists a woman with the balling of her yarn?” The man, Jesus, is soon chased away by Antipas’ guards, which may foreshadow events to come since he takes a beating for her, and he seems to bear the burden of her sadness over her betrothal. After he’s gone, she picks up a fallen red thread from the ground and keeps it throughout the story, at first tying it around her wrist. She’s so distraught that her aunt gives her an incantation bowl, into which she writes “bless this largeness in me,” in reference to her ability to write. Her aunt comforts her by telling her, “When the longing of one’s heart is inked into words and offered as a prayer, that’s when it springs to life in God’s mind.” Integrating Jesus into her prayer, Ana says, “Holding the bowl in my lap, I loosened the red thread from my wrist and laid it inside the bowl, circling it about the figure of the girl.” With respect for the raw power she has released, Ana’s aunt tells her, “Your moment will come, and when it does, you must seize it with all the bravery you can find.”
When she’s separated from him and longs to see him again, dwelling on him as her single shard of light, is when her love for him deepens. She has two great separations from him in the story, with the second separation being notable more mature, emphasizing how connected to him she is. Her parents are determined to burn all her scrolls when Ana refuses her betrothal and even when she later submits, so her aunt, Yaltha, helps her devise a way to walk the most treasured of her scrolls into a desert cave where she will bury them, and where she secretly hopes to cross paths with Jesus again when he’s praying alone. Details like “I’d instructed him [Lavi] to pack goat cheese, almonds, and diluted wine” for breakfast, are the kind of specificities needed to transport the reader into a different realm. When she loses hope of finding a suitable cave to hide her writings in is when she sees Jesus beyond a balsam grove, his arms raised in prayer as he sang the Aramaic Kaddish for mourners. “His voice cast a spell of beauty over me,” she writes of the moment.
Ana has a friend during this time named Tabitha, who she sees as becoming one of the unnamed biblical women that is judged too harshly through no fault of her own, indicative of the time and place; Tabitha has her tongue cut out for crying rape, which becomes a major touchstone of the story. Ana says that before Tabitha, “Everything I knew about rape I’d learned from the scriptures.” When she goes to see Tabitha, she decides: “I would give her more than lullabies; I would give her my anger.” Writing is again a tool of truth for women, for Ana says that “because Tabitha tried so hard to reveal what had happened to her, and been silenced for it… I inscribed the story of her rape and the maiming of her tongue.” Writing then, becomes vindication.
Ana’s brother Judas always seems to be so full of angst and misguided justice, exemplified when he tells her, “What I’m doing is larger than either of us. I’m doing this for God. For our people.” She tells him about the threat to his life, though he eloquently says, “It’s the fullness of time.” He also tells her that her betrothed, Nathanial, is the devil (which she feels she already knows). She pleads with him to help her get out of the betrothal, and though he tries he ultimately fails. Luckily for Ana though, the plague comes to Sepphoris (“The entire city was closed up tight as a fist”), and eventually takes her ill-fated betrothed. However, Ana is left blacklisted by the community.
When Ana spends time with Jesus in the cave where she has buried her scrolls, he’s obviously an author construction in the image of her own imagination, a place characters are meant to reside and thrive. A level of otherworldliness dwells through the story as well when he’s noted as stepping deeper into the cave, “away from the mist and nearer to where I stood,” embarking upon a mythological entrance to a netherworld. Like the author constructs him in her own image, Ana’s character sees herself in his character. “I wonder if, like me, he possessed a longing for something forbidden to him…” she says, but she prefers him to believe that “God’s hand was in their meeting.” She longs to tell him vital things about herself, such as “my brother was a fugitive,” as well as her ill-fated betrothal, and especially that she’s “a student, an ink maker, a composer of words, a collector of forgotten stories.” She ventures to tell him that she doesn’t think him wrong to doubt, but wonders to herself if “a girl would presume to instruct a devout Jewish man on the vagaries of devotion? Had he caught a glimpse of me, Ana, the girl at the bottom of the incantation bowl?”
When they eat together, and she asks him, “You break bread with a woman and a gentile?” though the two classifications/labels would seem to divide rather than unite them. She explains why she told him so much about herself by saying, “I spoke of them because I wish you to know and understand me.” This desire is human nature and is accentuated throughout the story, and later Ana speaks with words from the Song of Solomon: “Under the apple tree I awakened you…” meaning that love comes with knowledge of the person. These scenes define and characterize their whole relationship, from the beginning of the story to the end.
Sadly for Ana, the surrounding events of this timeframe also have her beholding her beaten brother: “There, bare chested, his skin a bewilderment of whip marks and blood crust stood Judas. His hands were bound, and he was cinched about his waist with a rope that was tied to that of a wild-eyed man I guessed to be Simon ben Gioras.” This scene may foreshadow Jesus, possibly from Ana’s perspective since she couldn’t run to Judas’ rescue and could also do nothing for Jesus later. Ana devises a deal with Antipas where she’ll sit for his artist if Antipas releases her brother, and her likeness is thus created among a mosaic of fish and sea creatures, of which she says, “I could almost feel the tale swish.” However, Antipas’s wife Phasaelis keenly tells Ana, “But we both know, don’t we, that Judas is more of a threat now than before.”
After her portrait is created, and to rebel against nearly having to become Antipas’ concubine, she swipes a writing plaque and runs out – she becomes a fugitive because of this, as well as an outcast because her betrothed is dead. She almost become victim to a stoning at that point, which Jesus saves her from by claiming her as his betrothed. Her mother’s bitterness during this time would clearly reveal jealousy of her daughter, given Ana’s youth, possibility, and love. Ana’s mother must have felt like she had her own identity ripped away when she married Ana’s father, and so she seems to try to tear Ana’s identity and future away to validate herself. Ana says, “The sins of the son were visited on the father just as the father’s sins were visited on the son,” but those words could just as easily apply to Ana’s mother.
Mary is introduced as Jesus’ mother, as are Jesus’ siblings, when Ana travels to his house, though she is herself very notably a character with distinctly human fears. John the Immerser also makes a cameo in the story, which is fascinating. To meet up with John, Ana says, “We took the pilgrim road, leaving the green hills of Galilee and descending into the dense thickets of the Jordan River valley, traveling through stretches of wilderness filled with jackals,” and she notes “the robbers who hid in the barren cliffs that lined the valley.” In this atmosphere, she and Jesus happen to stumble upon Tabitha, who has been beaten and lay groaning and nearly dead on the road. Ana witnesses that “Her small, lissome body, the one that had danced with such grace and abandon, was bony and clenched as if in a perpetual state of recoil,” possibly symbolizing how much they will all be beaten up by life. Again, Ana returns to the major theme of the book when she asks, “How long, I thought, has it been since she was listened to, much less understood?” This question is universal for the women of this era, but when their friend Mary gives Tabitha a lyre during her recovery, Ana acknowledges, “Mary, you have given her a voice,” and also rightly reveals that “…every pain in this world wants to be witnessed, Tabitha.”
Ana must soon leave for Egypt, though, when Antipas seeks to arrest her for warning his wife of danger in a note, at the same time when Jesus says he must begin his ministry in the Galilee. But when Ana and her Aunt Yaltha are in Alexandria, the book is at its best – because not only does the reader feel the importance of writing to preserve memory, but the story also reveals the importance of seeking. Moreover, Ana asserts that the spirit of a book cannot be destroyed, and she essentially etches herself into her writing in Egypt. So much of her need to write the stories of the matriarchs to preserve their memory harkens back to ancient Egypt. Writing becomes even more a part of her make-up there, until it draws breath and reaches out in worship.
Ana serves as a scribe to her uncle upon her arrival, but at first, she and her aunt aren’t allowed to leave the house; they are essentially kept prisoner because he doesn’t want Yaltha to learn what happened to her daughter years earlier. Regardless, Yaltha and Ana persevere to find answers. Yaltha knows that life continues for women, and she tells Ana that “our people were desolated by so much suffering, that it created in them a deep hope for an ideal future.”
Ana says that, “I wrote on the most beautiful papyri I’d ever beheld, white, close-grained, polished sheets, and I learned how to gum them together to create rolls twice as long as I was tall.” She finds ways to look through her uncle’s records for any trace of Yaltha’s lost daughter, whom she eventually discovers is a priestess of Isis. It isn’t until her uncle leaves for an extended time, that they are finally able to seek Yaltha’s daughter, as well as wisdom. Ana says of the great library, “Reaching the steps, I read the Greek inscription carved over the doors – ‘A healing Sanctum’…” The reader is an eyewitness to history when Ana ventures further into the library and says, “As we moved from hall to hall, I became aware of young men in short white tunics dashing about, some carrying arm-loads of papyri, others on ladders arranging scrolls in cubicles or dusting them with tufts of feathers.” Lavi eventually becomes one of these librarians. “It’s a holy of holies,” Ana says, harkening to her own longing, but witnessing the men that debate the distance to God and back. With these passages, I remember the biblical “where would I be but in my father’s house?”
In this way, Ana is bonded with her husband though he sent her to Egypt without him, which she seems to understand but is aching from. She says that “Knowing that we both prayed at the morning hour each day was like a tether binding us…” When her uncle returns, Ana and her aunt go to Therapeutae, where they are engulphed by “study, reading, writing, composing songs, prayer.” Therapeutae gives her something purposeful to do as she longs for her husband and awaits being summoned back to the Galilee. The leader of the community tells her, “We will teach you about our god and you will teach us about yours, and together we’ll find the god that exists behind them.” She creates a hymn called ‘Thunder: Perfect Mind’ and she learns to make codex, which is to her a thing of wonder.
At last, she receives the letter from Judas that she’s been waiting for. He writes, “I will do what I must this Passover…the sacrifice of one for many.” Because Ana knows that “The surest way to incite the masses is for the Romans to execute their messiah,” the words slam into her with dread. She knows that “He will deliver Jesus to the romans.” She also admits that the rift between her husband and her brother had always existed, “buried deep within their differing visions of how to establish god’s kingdom.” After the letter she knows she must get back to warn Jesus about her brother, deviating from her brother, and she escapes inside Theano’s coffin.
After realizing there was nothing she could have done to prevent her husband’s death, Ana decides to “return to Egypt to live out my days with my aunt. There’s a community there of spiritual seekers and philosophers. I will live among them.” Tabatha wants to go to the Egyptian community with her, and she asks (of God), “could I not seek him in music?” Upon this question, Ana knows that the leader of the community would welcome her. Therapeutae, meaning healers, connects with Ana’s feeling of the great library and writing itself.
As the years go by and Yaltha is close to her last days, she tells Ana, “Bury your writings, so one day they can be found again.” Ana, then the leader of the Therapeutae herself, carries “thirty leather-bound copies of my writings. All the words I’ve written since I was fourteen. My everything” into the desert to bury. To be found again, to come back, and referencing ‘my everything,’ are all themes of Christianity, and harken to a resolution greater than she realizes in the moment. The Book of Longings, which I read effortlessly as fiction, accomplishes its story-telling goal within captivating history and purpose. Sue Monk Kidd does an admirable job of peeling back the layers of time to present a story woven with intrigue in an ancient world gone by.
Justine Johnston Hemmestad has a published novella called Truth be Told and a published novel called Visions of a Dream, and she is included in seventeen anthologies including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries and Into the Glen, Into the Light.
She also has stories published in several magazines, including The Nonbinary Review and Kaleidoscope. In total, she has been writing for twenty-five years. She earned her Master’s Degree in English Literature from Northern Arizona University in 2020, despite a car accident thirty years earlier in which she sustained a severe brain injury. She also has seven children and two grandchildren.