In the first sentences of The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (she/her), Ana announces herself as the wife of Jesus of Nazareth. Why have we not heard of her before? The story goes back to when Ana is fourteen. She’s recently started her first period but is keeping it a secret from her parents because she has become eligible for marriage. An arranged marriage. Though Ana’s father is the lead scribe for Herod Antipas (who had both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth put to death), he does not hold any land. Ana’s father arranges a marriage with a landholder who will pay his bride price in acreage. Already, the family has standing and wealth, but he wants to claim land, too.
When Ana first meets her soon-to-be betrothed, they are in the market. There, she sees a young man holding yarn for a woman who looks similar to him — siblings, we assume — and later discover this is Jesus, for whom Ana pines in true teen girl fashion (I mean fervently and immediately, not like drawing hearts on her homework). Although she wants to meet and speak with Jesus again, her primary goal is hiding her writing, scrolls covered in stories of women in the Bible, before her mother destroys them. Ana’s father was indulgent when he let his daughter have a tutor and learn to read and write, the mother feels, and now that Ana is going to be a wife, the mother will destroy evidence of unwomanly activities.
The Book of Longings continues with Ana marrying Jesus, her life with his broke family in Nazareth, and making choices that help others but endanger her. Kidd imagines Judas as Ana’s relative, raised alongside her as a brother. The author invents Yaltha, an aunt who believes in following what you long for, and acts as a mother to Ana for the majority of the novel. We’re taken to Alexandria and Therapeutae and meet characters I’d heard of from the Bible, but this is truly Ana’s story, a feminist story that includes education, birth control, and having a voice.
The novel is written clearly and includes an easy-to-follow map in the beginning. Kidd never lets readers forget we are reading about Middle Eastern people — brown skin, dark and curly hair, dark eyes — adding an element of believability to the characters compared to modern images of Jesus and Mary as milky-skinned. And for every moment during which the characters seem enlightened, such as a talk Jesus and Ana have about starting a family or doing bigger works, like missionary and writing projects, someone does something thoughtless that has far-reaching implications. At times I wanted Ana to stop being reckless, for there are occasions when her decisions lead to years-long consequences. But that would halt the progression of the plot, no?
After the conclusion, Kidd includes an author’s note regarding what she added to Biblical stories and scholarship and why. Ana is fabricated, but given the society it’s unlikely Jesus would have been single. I did have questions, such as what Ana was writing when she was a teen. She says she’s read about men in the Bible, especially “Moses, Moses, Moses,” but what was she adding about women? Was she rewriting their already-written stories? Was she doing research or fabricating stories about these women to bring them to life? Later, Ana pens narratives of women she meets for her collection, but she clings to those early scrolls, risking her life at times for them.
Overall, The Book of Longings is an engaging novel, and depending on your background, noticing details, like an improvement in Lazarus’s pallor, is like finding “Easter Eggs,” or the experience of reading a book and then watching the movie to see what’s different.
CW: violence, rape