Saturday, August 25, 2012

What I Read This Summer

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (hardcover, e-book Oct. 2011; paper, April 2012; Scribner, 528 pages.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (e-book and hardcover Oct. 2011, Farrar Straus and Giroux; paperback Sept. 2012, Picador, 416 pages. Also available as e-book in Greek.) 

This is not intended a formal review. I just thought I’d share some thoughts with you on two books I read this summer, both of them gifts. I read them on a Kindle, because when I began the first one, I had not yet had cataract surgery and my sight had deteriorated to the point where I couldn’t read the type in paper books. With Kindle (and I assume other e-readers) you can make the type big and bigger. Happily now after surgery I can also go back to reading print books (and looking at a computer screen without agony.)

Anyway, both these novels have achieved bestseller status and are widely reviewed. Both are by well-known authors who, in these books, depart from their previous work.

I have read several of Alice Hoffman’s previous novels, but none of them prepared me for the depth and high literary quality of The Dovekeepers. As I was reading it I imagined that Hoffman had for years wanted to write a book like this, maybe specifically this book, but held back until she had established herself sufficiently that she could do this book the way she wanted and get it published. But then, I have a vivid imagination.

Other novels I've ready by Hoffman are set in today's world and written in the genre known as magic (or magical) realism. This means that experiences usually considered beyond ordinary (what some might call paranormal) are integrated with ordinary experience and written about in the same way as everyday experiences. The Dovekeepers is historical fiction with magic realism. It can also be considered literary fiction. It takes place c. 70-74 C.E.  Jewish sacarri (militants) have overtaken a Roman fortress at Masada. After the  destruction of the second Temple,  Jews fled Jerusalem and some of them took refuge at Masada. In the novel a group of Essenes also take refuge there. Before long,  the Romans lay siege to the fortress.

The point-of-view characters are four women, Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah, who come from various parts of the Jewish community in the Ancient Near East. Some of the women are Witches. Some have other spiritual titles. They are all dovekeepers at Masada, helped by a slave called "The Man from the North." In a variety of ways, there is plenty of magic worked by the women in this book. Like the other Jews, they worship a male deity they call "Adonai,"(a term still used in Judaism today but—at least up until long ago when I was growing up—rarely written or spoken except in prayer) but they also have their own rituals and somewhat secretly continue to worship a Goddess referred to in this book as Ashtoreth. And this brings me to my biggest quibble with this book. As far as I know, and other Goddess scholars I asked about this concur, the name "Ashtoreth" is a Goddess name only in the Bible and is probably used there as a way to avoid paying homage to the Goddesses Asherah and Astarte, or as a way of dissing them. As far as we can tell, the goddess name "Ashtoreth" is not historical. So why did Hoffman use it in this book? Possibly this comes from the sources and advisors she used, listed in the Acknowlegements at the end of the book. Her primary source is Josephus, who wrote the only account of the seige written at the time it occurred. Also, her contemporary advisors/expert consultants were, as far as I can tell, people whose views are likely to not part with the traditional/usual interpretations. Apparently, she did not consult any Goddess feminists.

A page on her website provides a glossary of terms she uses in the book. In addition to "Ashtoreth," note, for example, that her definition of "Shekhina" doesn't include its use as a term for the feminine/female divine. Actually, if she is using the term in the context of how it was used c. 72 CE, this may be correct; from what I’ve read "Shekhina" didn't become personified until later, as part of Kabbalah. Yet as I was reading The Dovekeepers, it seemed to me that Hoffman gave the term feminine/female qualities—but maybe I was reading that into it.

Since this is a historical novel, it will not be spoiling it to tell you, in case you don’t know, that the Jews at Masada committed mass suicide  as a preferable alternative to being killed or enslaved by the approaching Romans.

At the end of the book, Hoffman has included discussion questions. One of them asks how her previous books’ "mystical elements" compare with the use of magic in The Dovekeepers. As I read the book (before seeing the discussion questions) it occurred to me that the use of magical realism—or its effect—was different in this book than in her previous books, and I wondered why—or how. What I’ve come up with is that magical realism used in contemporary settings is more of a "break" from what we are used to reading in realistic novels. But The Dovekeepers is set in a time when magical perceptions and actions were not so separate from the everyday, making the integration of magical qualities easier for the reader (and possible the author as well). If you’ve read the book, I’d be interested in your comment on this.

The Marriage Plot is Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel. It has already won or been nominated for several awards. Several years ago I read his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Middlesex. I liked The Marriage Plot at least as much as Middlesex. The first part of The Marriage Plot describes student life at Brown University and includes drily humorous references to intellects and intellectual matters of the early 1980s. Eugenides’ focus is on three students graduating from Brown c. 1982: Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell. Eugenides may be one of the few male authors who can convincingly write large portions from the point of view of a woman, as he does when writing from Madeleine’s pov. The book gets its title from the literary theory popular at the time that all novels written up to that point were dependent on a plot about women and marriage, which was outmoded by the changes in marriage in the late 20th century. Literary theorists therefore proposed that because the traditional "marriage plot" could no longer be used credibly, the novel itself was outmoded and would cease to exist as a literary form. Part (and only part) of what Eugenides does in this novel is to disprove this theory. Madeleine’s father teaches at a fictional university that Eugenides calls "Baxter" (but which seems to me to be based on Princeton University) and her family lives in a town called "Prettybrook," which I think may be based on the town of Princeton (which has a major scenic road called Prettybrook, as well as Prettybrook Tennis Club) possibly combined with nearby Hopewell (can you tell I grew up in this NJ area?). Madeleine's most intense scholarly interest is Victorian novels. She and Leonard, a popular and I would say egotistical, Brown student, become romantically involved. (As far as I can tell, only "Prettybrook" and "Baxter" are made-up names of places and institutions. For example, Brown is called by name and located where it’s located: Providence RI.) Madeleine is supposedly a graduate of a real-life private school people call "Lawrenceville," whose official name is The Lawrenceville School, located 5 miles from Princeton in Lawrenceville, NJ.) However, IRL this school didn’t accept girls until 1987. So perhaps this is Eugenides saying, "if only." OTOH, Pembroke (Brown’s women college) merged with the previously all-male Brown U in 1971. By graduation, Leonard has been diagnosed with manic-depressive illness. Mitchell is also romantically interested in Madeleine, but, being sensitive, is not aggressive or even assertive in showing his interest.

After Brown graduation, Madeleine and Leonard continue on together at Leonard’s post-grad research stint on Cape Cod in Provincetown. On a post-graduation trip first to Europe and then to India, Mitchell, whose Detroit family is described as being less affluent than Madeleine's or Leonard's, travels first to Europe with his friend Larry and then to India on his own, exploring his growing interest in religion, at this point traditional Christianity. While in Europe, Mitchell meets Larry’s girlfriend, Claire, an American student in Paris who quotes feminist Luce Irigary to him. Then Claire, whose family is Orthodox Jewish, gives Mitchell her opinion on religion: "The whole thing about Judaism and Christianity...and just about every monotheistic religion, is that they’re all patriarchal. Men made these religions up. So guess who God is? A man." Mitchell counters that in "any decent theology...God is beyond any human concept or category." Claire challenges:"Then why is he a man with a long white beard on the Sistine Chapel?" To which Mitchell replies, "Because that’s what the masses like...." and then goes on to refer to God with masculine pronouns. Their discussion continues, with Mitchell getting increasingly irritated by Claire’s explanations, which include: "Before the patriarchal religions were created, people worshipped the Goddess....The religion of the Goddess was organic and environmental—it was about the cycle of nature—as opposed to Judaism and Christianity, which are just about imposing the law and raping the land." Mitchell notices Larry, who comes from a Jewish background more secular than Claire’s, nodding in agreement, but Mitchell isn’t convinced. In India, he volunteers at Mother Teresa’s Kalighat hospice, an abandoned temple originally dedicated to the Goddess Kali, located next to Kalighat Kali Temple, which continues to house Kali worship.

That’s all of the plot you’re getting from me, except to say that no, Mitchell doesn’t end up becoming a Goddess follower, though his spiritual beliefs and practices do change in other ways.

I will comment on this novel’s structure, though. We feminists who write fiction sometimes talk about attempting to write a plot in "spiral" form rather than straightforward chronological order. This usually includes flashback, but is more involved than conventional flashback formulas. (I myself had a go at this in my novel, Beyond All Desiring and to a lesser extent in my novel, Three Part Invention.) Eugenides does this beautifully in The Marriage Plot, flashing back and forward, almost seamlessly. To some readers not used to literary fiction, because he sometimes doesn’t give the clear transitions when switching time-frames, it may be a bit confusing. But I think it well worth the small effort to understand a relatively new way of perceiving.

Eugenides is originally from Detroit, developed an interest in religion when young, received his undergrad degree from Brown, and now is a professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University, you know, near Prettybrook.  Did I mention that, at least in the Kindle version, although referring to "Prettybrook" as Madeleine’s family’s home in the rest of the novel,   on Location 5087 (page 264), Eugenides writes that "Madeleine drove down to Princeton to see her parents and get some things from home." Anyone know if this possible slip survived into the print edition? Or was this an intentional tip-off?

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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.