The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

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

24 comments

  1. I think Sue Monk Kidd probably has a good heart, and I’ve read and enjoyed other historical fiction where women authors have re-looked at history with a feminist eye, but this is pure invention. Not for me!

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    • I typically don’t read historical fiction, but since this is the first book Biscuit picked since we started our book club when COVID began, I figured I’d go for it. I find that typically historical fiction has more pathos than reading just history, but then I try to remember that people had loads of emotions in the past, too? It confuses my brain.

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  2. I’ll admit this sounds interesting but I struggle with books like this as a Christian. I don’t really get why people always seem to want to marry Jesus off!

    I’d be really curious too about what Ana’s writings were and how they connect to existing stories of women in the Bible.

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    • Lou, another blogger/reader who is a Christian, said she does not read fictionalized stories of Jesus because she finds it disrespectful, yet does not disparage when these books do find the right audience.

      In the author notes, Sun Monk Kidd mentions that given the rules of the society at the time, it would have been incredibly unlikely for Jesus to have remained unmarried. I found that interesting.

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      • There is a book by Jose Saramago, an author whose work I’ve admired, about Jesus that I had to stop because I felt it was disrespectful. But I wouldn’t expect every reader to have the same reaction and I can definitely understand that people are fascinated with the “what ifs” of Jesus’ life.

        That is probably true but the New Testament also pretty firmly establishes Jesus as a man who lives a life outside of what is expected of him and who isn’t afraid of doing unusual and sometimes shocking things. Him being unmarried is probably one of the less unusual things about him!

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  3. Again, I am going to come off completely ignorant here, but wasn’t Jesus married to Mary? Oh shoot, Jesus was Mary’s son wasn’t he? Mary was married to…Jesus’s Dad, was that Moses? Oh cringe I am so bad at this.

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  4. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, if I was born in another time/country, I would have been stoned to death.
    The fact that Ana’s writings were never described would drove me mad. If a girl is that obsessed with them, then I need to know what they are about, or I feel like I’m missing out.
    Honestly, even though I enjoyed another Kidd book, knowing this one is a religious story, I will be avoiding it.

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    • She almost was stoned to death in the novel after being accused of stealing a piece of ivory paper, which…I can’t picture at all??

      Actually, what I picture if you and I lived during that time is us wandering through the desert like in Beavis and Butthead Do America, saying things like, “The sun sucks.”

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      • Lmao. That’s exactly what we would say. I for one, burn SO easily. That would legitimately be a nightmare. I think I would rather freeze to death than die of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
        Stoning is such a fucked up way to die. I kind of want to know who was the first person to think that up. What a sadist.

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  5. Hm, this makes me think immediately of these stories we used to get read out at school in assembly “I was Jesus’ donkey”, etc. I think it was meant to connect us to the stories of the Bible but I didn’t like them. I am not keen on novelisations of real people’s lives, and I just think this is such a weird idea, but fair enough if it’s got talking points, is well done and gets people thinking!

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  6. This sounds like that subset of historical fiction called “alternative history”. In typical historical fiction, some things are imagined but the basic facts are right, whereas in “alternative history” there is more fictionalisation. I’d say the fact that we know nothing about Jesus having a wife pushes this into the alternative realm. The best alternative histories, I think, are those that the author can make us believe could have happened. It sounds like Sue Monk Kidd has done that?

    My next question, with historical fiction (including this subset) is why? I think the why question is relevant to all fiction really, but with historical fiction it’s particularly relevant because you have to wonder why go back into the past? It sounds like here there’s a feminist reason? To give a story to women of the time, to imagine what their lives were really like given history has paid them little attention?

    And then the question is, has the author done it well? It sounds to me as though Monk Kidd has justified why she’s done it and that she has engaged you. If that’s the case then it sounds like a fine book.

    I used to say that I didn’t like historical fiction but since blogging I’ve read far more than I ever expected to and, by picking “literary” historical fiction (by which means not historical romances, or formulaic historical dramas), I’ve found a lot of great reading. I’m not keen on religious subjects, but I have read a couple that were really interesting, like Leslie Cannold’s The book of Rachael (the invented sister of Jesus and wife of Judas) and Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus, which looks at the life of Saul/Paul. So, as with most things in my reading, it’s never say never!

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    • Because I don’t read much historical fiction, I hadn’t even thought about the different sub-genres that could exist. I think you are right; this is more a “what if?” book than a true look at a historical time period with a big of imagination to fill in the gaps of what people said or felt.

      I do think Monk Kidd chose to write this novel from a place of curiosity about women and the role they may have played in Jesus’s life. His mother, Mary, seemed more passive in The Book of Longings than I would have imagined, but Jesus also had a sister-in-law in this book who was a jackass because she was meant to marry Jesus (he was the oldest), but Jesus said he was meant for something else, so the woman was married to Jesus’s younger brother. Then, Jesus turns around and marries Ana. The sister-in-law feels slighted and makes everyone miserable.

      Perhaps pushing the boundaries (though I’m not sure because I have not studied this time period), there are also conversations about birth control. When hers fails, Ana has a child, and then she discusses with Jesus why she does not want to get pregnant again. It feels terribly modern to me. Even during moments like these, ones I found hard to believe, I was engaged in the author’s story and got a sense of the place and people.

      For me, I tend to not like historical fiction because so much of it makes a melodrama of the past. However, I am learning that by reading historical fiction, I’m actually remember dates and people’s names better than I do with history books. Oddly, though, all the historical fiction I’ve read lately is based on Bible stories, which many have pointed out to me may not be “historical” at all, but just stories.

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      • Thanks for all this Melanie … I’ll make just two responses. One is that this issue of being terribly modern that is sometimes said about historical fiction bothers me a little because humans don’t change a whole lot. Why wouldn’t some women have not wanted to have lots of children then any more than now. Sure, culturally, it was harder for them to go against the grain, but the reason we have more acceptance now, it seems to me, is because it’s something women have always wanted and we’ve fought to enable women to make these choices now. I get a bit frustrated sometimes at the implication that these thoughts, wishes, desires jumped up suddenly in the late 20th century. Does this make sense? I love though that regardless of this you were engaged.

        The other is the issue of historical versus stories. Interesting point. I guess it partly comes down to how you define historical. For me historical means set in a “real” past, and biblical times were real, but it doesn’t have to be about known people or events. I could be on a limb here but this is where I – and I think you – often depart with the genre because so often traditional historical fiction has turned on real people and events and it can be over dramatises or melodramatic as you say. I’m much more interested, for example, in historical fiction about ordinary people set during, say, the depression. The author will have researched the era well and historical figures might be mentioned, eg for you the President might be mentioned in terms of policy, but it’s not about them.

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        • To your first point: I use pretty much the same argument when my students used to ask me if we should just people on today’s standards or society in the past (whichever time period). And honestly, you can’t convince me that every white person everywhere in the U.S. thought that African people and their descendants, kidnapped and brought to the U.S. by force, were not human beings. It would take a lot to convince me that evidence of families, parenting, suffering, and love wasn’t obvious, and obviously signs of humanity, let alone the generations that learned to speak English and could say these things.

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