Sue Monk Kidd

A Review of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Book of Longings”

“The Book of Longings” Paperback Book Cover
“The Book of Longings” Paperback Book Cover

This is the book everyone in my church is seemingly talking about. My pastor has even referenced it in not one, but at least two Sunday morning reflections that I’m aware of — though taking great pains to indicate that this is a work of fiction. The reason he would have to make that pronouncement is because this is a book about Jesus’ wife. Of course, the Bible says nothing on the matter, but it was customary at the time for men of about age 20 in Jesus’ time to take wives to secure their manhood and standing in Jewish tradition and culture. Thus, Jesus having a wife might be entirely plausible — but, unless there’s some evidence of this (which the author, in an author’s note at the end of the book, admits might not be enough), we will never know for certain. And, one must consider that even if it was customary for men to take wives in first-century Jewish custom, Jesus was a radical character who didn’t always adhere to custom, anyway. Take that all as you will. I have no opinion on the matter, except that the concept does make for an illuminating read through the eyes of a woman: what would it be like to be the wife of the Messiah at a time when women’s voices were silenced?

In my reviews, the second paragraph is usually a plot synopsis of what the book is about. However, I would strongly encourage would-be readers to know as little about the book as possible because this is really three novels stuffed into one, and, in a rather poor attempt at encapsulating it, the paperback copy I procured essentially goes on to reveal about three- fourths of what the book is about, just being vague on certain events that lead to other events. (And I find it odd that the marriage angle is muted in this copy, probably to not offend potential buyers of the book who might be offended by the concept.) However, if you need to know what the book is about, focus on the beginning. This is the story of 14-year-old Ana, who is something of a rebel and is not a typical young girl of the period in that she has been tutored (she has rich parents) and writes about women of the Bible who have been marginalized. Her life changes around the time her aunt Yaltha comes to live with the family. Ana is to be married off to a wealthy individual who she is not attracted to simply for her father to receive land as part of the marriage contract, land being something he doesn’t have. (Ana’s parents, it turns out, are monsters.) That said, in the marketplace en route to meeting her husband of arranged marriage for the first time, she has a run-in with Jesus. And the rest, as they say, is history. (Or is it?)

The Book of Longings is similar to Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, except that Sue Monk Kidd’s book is (probably) more closer to historical truth even though certain liberties were taken with the historical records and even the Bible. (Notwithstanding the whole marriage to Jesus plot.) It’s hard for me to say which book is better and, in the end, they might be on the same page in terms of how one will enjoy them, though each has its distinct merits. I did find that The Book of Longings was perhaps a smidge more literary, though it has all the markings of a first-century thriller as Ana moves from being in trouble to being in even worse trouble for the things that she does. While I understand the motivations for this, and this is really a feminist take on the politics of Jesus’ time, this can be a harrowing read — punctuated with periods of downtime as Ana learns how to be a good peasant wife once she is married to someone beneath her station (in some respects). The book can be gripping, but it also allows for pauses of reflection because, from reading The Book of Longings, I can tell you that women get a bad rap — and the treatment of them hasn’t improved all that much in the proceeding 2,000 years.

To that end, it may disappoint some that there isn’t all that much Jesus in the novel — for the first 130 odd pages he’s a minor character barely mentioned, and then when Ana and Jesus get hitched, he either must be away to provide for the family or he’s off pursuing his ministry. That’s probably a political point, but since he’s such a fascinating historical character — and, to be clear, it is the historical Jesus that’s present here and not the Jesus as miracle worker as described in the Bible — his absence is profoundly noted. Instead, this is a book that is just as much about the sisterhood of women and the family ties that bind. The subplot that takes up the last third of the book attests to this. (I’ll say no more — I don’t want to spoil things.) That said, we do get to the Crucifixion and, if I’m being honest, there will be no dry eyes in the room by those who are reading this novel by that point.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would implore others to read it — with the caveat that some Evangelicals will probably be offended. (I saw someone asking on Goodreads if this was a book about a main character who converts to Christianity — and was thus offensive — to which you can only respond that there was no Christianity at the time of Jesus.) This is a novel about finding one’s voice and using it for the common good out of love. I’m curious to know what my pastor really thought of it — I think he did indicate briefly that it was a good book, and it obviously did yield some material for his reflections, specifically about Sophia wisdom. However, as much as my opinion matters, this is probably one of those novels best left in the hands of book study groups and conversations with others around it. Ignoring that for a moment, The Book of Longings is an intriguing read, and makes one wonder about the possibilities of the historical record. I suppose I’ve given in to peer pressure and read the book because it is so often talked about in my church community. I’m glad I did for The Book of Longings is a reminder to me to not take my manhood for granted, and I should seek to give voice to others. In that sense, this novel was and is a wild success.

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings was published by Penguin Books on March 23, 2021.

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Book critic, Fiction author, Poet, Writer, Editor. Follow me on Twitter @zachary_houle.