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Review: 'Book of Longings' has an ambitious, lasting power

“The Book of Longings,” by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking) “I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.” With these opening words, Sue Monk Kidd launches into her ambitious new novel, “The Book of Longings.”

Ana is a force to be reckoned with. A woman who questions the constraints of her gender and, after escaping an unwanted betrothal, she marries the most sincerely feminist man of biblical times. Jesus.

It is clear from the first page that Kidd is courageous in imagining the life of Jesus as a married man. How many authors would take this on? But her painstaking research and artful crafting of setting and character ensures that “The Book of Longings” is not just an extraordinary novel, but one with lasting power.

From childhood, Ana had always been different, having developed a love of writing and a longing to make her voice heard. “A child as awkward as I required an explanation,” Kidd writes, describing Ana’s rebellious nature and early conflict with gender norms. “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 poor baby boy.”

It is not until her Aunt Yaltha comes to live with her — bestowing on the girl all the warmth lacking in her mother — that Ana starts to see her intelligence not as an accident but as a gift from God. Yaltha, too, is a gift, about whom Ana says: “Unlike my mother, unlike every woman I knew, my aunt was educated. Her mind was an immense feral country that spilled its borders. She trespassed everywhere.”

Yaltha is indeed a fascinating character, who sees and experiences tragedy but refuses to be victimized. The advice she gives to Ana is that all will be well. How? By staying true to herself. By finding her own path. By reassembling her life – however broken — according to her own design. Ana, who faces her own tragedies, rises to that challenge again and again.

After her aunt’s arrival, Ana starts to think of her own parchments and scrolls she tucks away in her cedar chest less as her “audacities” and more as the contributions she wishes to leave for posterity. Namely, the stories of the matriarchs in the Scriptures who have been cast to the shadows.

“To be ignored, to be forgotten, this was the worst sadness of all,” Ana says. “I swore an oath to set down their accomplishments and praise their flourishings, no matter how small. I would be a chronicler of lost stories.”

Kidd’s brilliance shines through on so many levels, but not the least in her masterful, reverential approach to capturing Jesus of Nazareth as a fully human young man in his 20s. One who loves and worships God but also works to support his mother and siblings, and takes a wife whom he loves, respects and nicknames Little Thunder. He is not shocked by or opposed to her rebellious nature or her desire to follow her own longings. Rather, he is drawn to it.

The result is an epic masterpiece that is a triumph of insight and storytelling.

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