I love this book. I didn’t expect to given the complaints I kept seeing in reviews about how it was not enough this and too much that. Yes of course I read reviews. I’m curious about what people think of things. In this case, I believe that a lot of them were… not wrong per se, because your opinions are never wrong. But I think they were looking for something far smaller than what Alderman has given us here.
To begin, this isn’t a book that is primarily about being a Jewish lesbian. It’s not primarily about being Jewish or being a lesbian even though both those things are critical to understanding what’s being said. The book’s theme is right there in the title, but it takes a long time, and some discomfort to understand what disobedience has to do with anything. It’s about man’s (in the generic sense) relationship with God. It’s about our relationship to ourselves and how we become who we need to be.
It’s the story of Ronit Krushka, the estranged daughter of an Orthodox Rabbi, who returns home from her self-imposed exile in New York after her father dies. She plans to stay with her cousin, Dovid, unaware that he is married to Ronit’s girlhood lover, Esti. I didn’t like Ronit at the beginning, she seemed like a walking cliche to me. She had no use for her father, never contacted him after she left home. She has no use for the community she grew up in, for the religion in which she was raised. She self-identifies as lesbian but has an on-again, off-again affair with her (male) boss. She felt like everyone I’ve ever known who felt compelled to rebel as loudly and obviously as possible.
Her cousin, Dovid, seems like a non-entity. We are told right at the start that nobody in the congregation would ever think of him as the Rav, even though he’s been groomed to succeed Rabbi Krushka. His wife, Ronit’s former lover Esti, is odd in a way that has already been marked by the congregation. They don’t know what to make of her. She harbors lustful thoughts for one of the teachers in her school, but never dares act on them, so we feel she is repressed. We see all of them from the outside, and it feels as if this is going to be a love story between Ronit and Esti that will scorch the earth of their carefully tended lives.
But without a lot of emotional upheaval, Alderman leads us into their minds and hearts, and we discover that none of them are who we think they are. None of them want what we expect them to want (I think that’s why a lot of people are disappointed in the book.), or react the way we expect them to react. We come to see them as more than just their sexuality or religion, we are given relationships that are complicated and unexpected, choices that perhaps we never expected, but which feel right in the context of the book.
By the end, I’d come to like Ronit a lot, and love Esti and Dovid. Even better, I felt hopeful that they would make the best possible decisions for themselves in the long run. I felt comfortable with the choices they’d made, and the quiet, determined way in which they lived their lives. I felt as if they were changing the paradigm in part because they had come to understand that their god gave them the ability to be disobedient, and to question His rules.
I came to the end and there were tears. I was surprised, yet unsurprised, and happy. In Ronit’s dream, I understood her journey and that of Esti and Dovid, and I knew they’d be all right, that they all had gained a sense of order that was meaningful to them.
I should say something about the narrator, who was very good. I’ve seen people complain that her Hebrew pronunciation is not the best, but I noted nothing wrong. I think it’s a good production.