An unusually structured, thoroughly researched and deeply felt work that creates an intimate portrait of two women and the...

THIS ISN'T EASY FOR ME

In Berengaut’s (The Estate of Wormwood and Honey, 2012) second novel, two women discuss love, physics, infidelity, polyamory, mathematics, the Holocaust and the importance of family.

Imagine if My Dinner with Andre, with its emphasis on dialogue and the nuanced analysis of past adventure and philosophy, took place between two contemporary, highly accomplished women having lunch. Berengaut has accomplished something remarkable: a novel composed entirely of dialogue, with no chapter breaks, that is riveting from beginning to end. Sabine Stern is an academic who is regularly invited to speak at top-tier universities, while Renata Rubinstein is a world-famous, wealthy intellectual married to a genius mathematician named Mark. Ostensibly, Sabine has arranged to meet Renata about a “personal matter,” but the conversation takes on incredible scope and depth, traversing the two women’s vast experience and knowledge, including their ancestors’ time in Nazi Germany and concepts of poetry and sexual fidelity. The narrative begins to take shape when Sabine mentions that she received an email out of the blue from Renata’s husband about a mathematical concept related to her work. Gradually, the women discover that their connection is about more than a simple chance email; the interweaving of their backgrounds, philosophies and approaches toward living has the potential to dramatically alter each of their destinies. The book’s strength is simultaneously its weakness. As Sabine and Renata discuss at one point: “It’s hard to believe that, once upon the time, people used to read philosophy for pleasure.” “It is a rather strange experience, reading those books. You understand the words, you sort of think that you understand the sentences, but the sense of paragraphs—not to say anything about whole chapters—is completely elusive.” Indeed, the engrossing narrative, which twists and turns through a variety of historical anecdotes and personal experiences, has no natural breaks, almost forcing readers to finish it in one sitting. However, the experience is a richly rewarding one, and the surprise ending is poignant without being sentimental. These mature, thoughtful women are unlike almost any others in popular contemporary literature, and their conversation—long, gorgeous, encompassing—is one of the most memorable in literature of the last 10 years.

An unusually structured, thoroughly researched and deeply felt work that creates an intimate portrait of two women and the decades they have thoughtfully inhabited.

Pub Date: Aug. 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500856175

Page Count: 256

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2014

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THE DOVEKEEPERS

Hoffman (The Red Garden, 2011, etc.) births literature from tragedy: the destruction of Jerusalem's Temple, the siege of Masada and the loss of Zion.

This is a feminist tale, a story of strong, intelligent women wedded to destiny by love and sacrifice. Told in four parts, the first comes from Yael, daughter of Yosef bar Elhanan, a Sicarii Zealot assassin, rejected by her father because of her mother's death in childbirth. It is 70 CE, and the Temple is destroyed. Yael, her father, and another Sicarii assassin, Jachim ben Simon, and his family flee Jerusalem. Hoffman's research renders the ancient world real as the group treks into Judea's desert, where they encounter Essenes, search for sustenance and burn under the sun. There too Jachim and Yael begin a tragic love affair. At Masada, Yael is sent to work in the dovecote, gathering eggs and fertilizer. She meets Shirah, her daughters, and Revka, who narrates part two. Revka's husband was killed when Romans sacked their village. Later, her daughter was murdered. At Masada, caring for grandsons turned mute by tragedy, Revka worries over her scholarly son-in-law, Yoav, now consumed by vengeance. Aziza, daughter of Shirah, carries the story onward. Born out of wedlock, Aziza grew up in Moab, among the people of the blue tunic. Her passion and curse is that she was raised as a warrior by her foster father. In part four, Shirah tells of her Alexandrian youth, the cherished daughter of a consort of the high priests. Shirah is a keshaphim, a woman of amulets, spells and medicine, and a woman connected to Shechinah, the feminine aspect of GodThe women are irretrievably bound to Eleazar ben Ya'ir, Masada's charismatic leader; Amram, Yael's brother; and Yoav, Aziza's companion and protector in battle. The plot is intriguingly complex, with only a single element unresolved.  An enthralling tale rendered with consummate literary skill.

 

Pub Date: Oct. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4516-1747-4

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2011

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Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.

THE CONVERT

A Christian woman and a Jewish man fall in love in medieval France.

In 1088, a Christian girl of Norman descent falls in love with the son of a rabbi. They run away together, to disastrous effect: Her father sends knights after them, and though they flee to a small southern village where they spend a few happy years, their budding family is soon decimated by a violent wave of First Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. The girl, whose name becomes Hamoutal when she converts to Judaism, winds up roaming the world. Hertmans’ (War and Turpentine, 2016, etc.) latest novel is based on a true story: The Cairo Genizah, a trove of medieval manuscripts preserved in an Egyptian synagogue, contained an account of Hamoutal’s plight. Hamoutal makes up about half of Hertmans’ novel; the other half is consumed by Hertmans’ own interest in her story. Whenever he can, he follows her journey: from Rouen, where she grew up, to Monieux, where she and David Todros—her Jewish husband—made a brief life for themselves, and all the way to Cairo, and back. “Knowing her life story and its tragic end,” Hertmans writes, “I wish I could warn her of what lies ahead.” The book has a quiet intimacy to it, and in his descriptions of landscape and travel, Hertmans’ prose is frequently lovely. In Narbonne, where David’s family lived, Hertmans describes “the cool of the paving stones in the late morning, the sound of doves’ wings flapping in the immaculate air.” But despite the drama of Hamoutal’s story, there is a static quality to the book, particularly in the sections where Hertmans describes his own travels. It’s an odd contradiction: Hertmans himself moves quickly through the world, but his book doesn’t quite move quickly enough.

Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4708-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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