November 16, 2010
Review of The Bookseller's Sonnets by Andi L. Rosenthal (Washington: O Books, 2010).
Is this another historical romance novel about the role of women and Jews in an earlier historical period? No, The Bookseller's Sonnets is not another Rashi's Daughters or The Fruit of Her Hands, though if you enjoyed those books you'll probably like this one even more. What makes this book different is the way it looks at Jewish life in the present day, refreshingly honest in its portrayal of people in interfaith relationships and interfaith families in today's Jewish community.
In the interests of transparency, I have to admit I suspected I would like this first novel. As the former editor here at InterfaithFamily.com, I had the opportunity to read a lot of Andi Rosenthal's work. She's has written over two dozen articles for InterfaithFamily.com about her life as the daughter a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who converted to Judaism as an adult. Her writing captures the nuances of a Jewish experience from a perspective most Jews usually don't hear. Part of her Jewish identity is always in her attitude toward family, making a strong value of not rejecting or hurting her Catholic relatives.
Even knowing the author, I was surprised at how much there was to love about The Bookseller's Sonnets. The main plot of the novel concerns Jill Levin, a conservator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors who is dating a non-Jewish man. At a crossroads in her relationship, Jill receives a mysterious manuscript from an anonymous donor who claims to be a Holocaust survivor. It is the diary of Sir Thomas More's eldest daughter Margaret.
More was a real historical person, an advisor to Henry VIII, the author of Utopia and an important Renaissance intellectual. He is known to have educated his daughters as well as his son, and what little we know about his eldest daughter Margaret More comes from letters from other intellectual figures admiring her learning. Rosenthal creates a credible narrative about a learned woman forced into a loveless, abusive marriage in the midst of a tumultuous historical period. The More chapters don't feel contrived. Rosenthal has achieved the difficult feat of supporting historical fiction with research while resisting the impulse to convey every historical detail.
The diary turns out to be an interfaith romance, too--the bookseller of the title is Daniel, a Spanish converso who woos Margaret More with poetry and the acknowledgement of her learning. He is a refugee from the Inquisition. There's another layer to the manuscript, which is the Holocaust narrative of the survivor who presents the More diary to Jill. It's an ambitious structure: Jill's life in the 21st century, the survivor's harrowing experience of the Second World War, and the Renaissance story.
As in A.S. Byatt's Persuasion, the narrative in the past parallels the main story in the present: Jill's decision about whether to marry her non-Jewish boyfriend, and how to tell her parents and grandmother about him. As in nearly every novel about interfaith marriage, there's a strong treatment of the family's objection to the relationship.
There's also a repeating theme of the complicated relationship between Jews and the Catholic Church. Daniel is a refugee from the Inquisition. The unnamed survivor who gives Jill the manuscripts entrusts her daughter to nuns to be hidden from the Nazis. In Jill's present, the Archdiocese of New York wants to take the manuscript from the Museum of Jewish Heritage in order to have control of the reputation of Thomas More, who as an opponent of the Protestant Reformation was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1935. Here the manuscript is somehow the legacy of two faith communities--like Rosenthal herself, and like many of us in the Jewish community who are children of interfaith families.
What rang my chimes after my tenure at InterfaithFamily.com were the many ways interfaith relationships affected the Jewish characters in this novel. The best scene for me was Jill's non-Jewish boyfriend Michael chanting Friday evening Kiddush as a surprise for her. It reminded me of Heather Seith's story, Hug Often, about her non-Jewish husband reciting the blessing over the wine. It was great to see an acknowledgement in fiction of the real ways many non-Jewish partners support Jewishness in their families.
This isn't one long paean to the power of interfaith love to preserve the Jewish community. One supportive character in this novel is an Orthodox woman whose arranged marriage disintegrates when her husband leaves her for the non-Jewish girlfriend his parents insisted he abandon. Another minor character is a child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother who has converted to Judaism in order to participate as an Orthodox Jew. The inclusion of these characters serves both to complicate the picture and to point out the possibilities for people from interfaith families to take part in all facets of Jewish life.
Rosenthal goes further. She gives Jill a strong Jewish identity and practice, and a Jewish job. That rings true as well. Even her job as a conservator sends a message: Jews in interfaith relationships still want to preserve Jewish identity and history for the next generation.