Review of Garden of Ruth, by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (Plume, 2006).
Eva Etzioni-Halevy is a self-proclaimed feminist. Her latest novel, The Garden of Ruth, is a dual narrative written from the viewpoint of two obstinate biblical women: Ruth and her great-granddaughter-in-law, Osnath.
As the story begins in Bethlehem, Osnath (the niece of the prophet Samuel) finds a poem in a relative's scroll-room. The poem, written by Ruth, vaguely talks of a great love, and is mysterious enough to intrigue Osnath to crave more. This leads her to embark on a personal mission to uncover Ruth's mysteries in whatever way possible, even though it means disrespecting Ruth's family's wishes to keep the story private. This sort of self-determination is rarely depicted in biblical women, thus illustrating the main source of Etzioni-Halevy's "feminist angle." However, when an early rape of teenager Osnath leads the girl to fall for her perpetrator, I am left wondering: How is this representative of women's liberation at all?
The second part of The Garden of Ruth is told in first-person by Ruth herself, and takes place many years prior. Ruth's story demystifies the identity of the man with whom Ruth fell in love, the subject of her poem. Born a Moabite, Ruth eventually converts to Judaism. After her husband's death, she follows her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Jerusalem where she intends to marry her husband's next-of-kin, but marries another man instead. The answers to the questions that arise from this turn of events are among those that Osnath so strongly seeks.
Etzioni-Halevy successfully presents the story of Ruth from the viewpoint of a strong woman character. That is refreshing, given the overabundance of men's voices in biblical stories. However, the women in the novel eventually acquiesce to the men by filling their prescribed role of mother, wife, and home-maker, making the suggested theme of feminism seem slight and transient.
Another theme running through the novel is the issue of interfaith marriage, and the feelings depicted on both the Jewish and non-Jewish sides still resonate today. Before Ruth converts to Judaism, she is warned by her mother not to marry a Jewish man because the Jewish god has "issued a host of unfathomable commandments," including that his people "fasten plaques with ancient inscriptions on them to their door-posts so as to fend off evil spirits." In reading this, Osnath remarks on how ignorant were "those people," referring to non-Jews.
The theme of deeming those who were not Jewish as "other"--because they were so uncivilized as not to conform to Jewish laws--also runs through this book. But these laws, such as not partaking in premarital sex, are broken by even the Jewish people in this story.
Etzioni-Halevy succeeds in creating dynamic parallels between two women of different generations. Both Osnath and Ruth struggle to find their own voice, long for love and acceptance, and carefully try to balance their sense of self with how they are seen by the world, including what is expected of them. In that sense, the characters are very modern. But their struggles become blurred by an over-abundance of minor characters who detract from the story and do nothing to move it forward. It takes the author 20 pages to put forth one point, and though she makes a concerted effort at lyricism, the text often becomes redundant and hackneyed.
It is perplexing that a novel calling itself feminist would not call attention to the fact that women at the time were expected to be subservient to their husbands and fathers. Though The Garden of Ruth succeeds in keeping the reader guessing, it is ultimately anti-climactic, overstated, and falls far short of promoting the empowerment of women.