Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel The Book of Longings is one that I was very much looking forward to reading. I loved The Secret Life of Bees and I also enjoyed The Invention of Wings, though not quite as much. In both of them, her writing and storytelling completely drew you in and held you through until the end. I was expecting much the same in this story, which is about Jesus’ wife, Ana. (Yes, that Jesus.)
And, aside from the writing, the subject of the novel intrigued me immensely. I adored The Red Tent, which is also a Biblical retelling, focusing on women in the Bible who are named but otherwise overlooked in the story. Obviously, in the Bible, Jesus doesn’t have a wife, so this was entirely outside of that scope. But, still I was expecting The Red Tent’s essence — a female-focused story set in Biblical times. I was left a little disappointed.
That is not to say SMK doesn’t deliver on a female-focused story set in Biblical times, because she does, essentially...
Clearly, this novel is carefully researched, and I certainly appreciated that. SMK explains in the author’s note that, in the times in which Jesus lived, it would be considered shameful — to himself and his family — had he not been married at his age. First-century Judaism dictated that he, or any other man, “not abstain from having a wife.” SMK thought given that, it was unlikely that, in his 20s — more than a decade before his ministry began, Jesus would reject the “religious and cultural ethic of his time and place” by not getting married. And so, SMK explores the idea of “what if Jesus had a wife?” with a goal of portraying him as fully human.
Like I said, the concept grabbed me and I loved the setting based on my experience with The Red Tent. But, on the whole, The Book of Longings left me wanting in several areas. First, it felt entirely too modern to me. I should have been utterly transported, and I definitely wasn’t. The setting seemed pretty true to the times but the language and the observations felt very modern. I also was left wanting in the “what if Jesus had a wife?” question. Odd, maybe, because he’s portrayed as having a wife… but she seemed to in no way have an impact on his life, and that was, honestly, unbelievable.
Ana is an independent-minded woman, who has grown up learning to read and write, a rarity in her time. She wants to tell the stories of women before her, and she wants to leave a mark of her own. When she first sees Jesus in the market, she is drawn to him and does everything she can to get back into his orbit. Eventually, they’re engaged… and then married. The short period in the book in which Ana and Jesus are living together (because, without giving too much away, they are apart for quite some time) was interesting.
But, in the end, Jesus seemed to have little effect on Ana as a person. She continued on in much the same manner as she had prior to meeting him — whether she was living with or without him, whether he was dead or alive. I suppose I could concede that she did think about some things differently, but for the most part, the core of who she was remained the same.
Likewise, Ana’s existence changed nothing about Jesus as he was portrayed in the novel. Now, obviously that would’ve been a fine line for SMK to walk. Jesus is beloved and worshipped, as he is in the Bible, by millions around the world. To change him would have required a delicacy, that honestly, the rest of the novel does not possess. But, as SMK herself points out in her author’s note, Jesus is depicted in the Bible up until the age of 12 and then not again until he is 30 — with little to no indication as to what was going on in between. A lot could've been happening, and that's where most of this story lives. But, Jesus seems to be the exact same before he met her as on the day he dies, and for a wife to have absolutely no effect on her husband (even if it's nuanced) is highly unlikely.
If his story doesn’t need her, and hers doesn’t need him, why are we telling it at all?
I’m not usually quite this critical about the novels I write full reviews on, so you may be somewhat taken aback. I did still enjoy the read, and I walked away giving the novel 4 stars on Goodreads (eventually downgrading it to a 3, after further thought). A 3-star book is, as a reminder, the majority of what I read, and that doesn’t mean they’re bad books — just that I wasn’t completely in love. I appreciate SMK’s efforts here. It’s possible that it suffered a bit from my high expectations. There is a lot in The Book of Longings to discuss, and it would be a wonderful selection for a book club.
I’ll be honest, I did select the dish I paired with this novel with book clubs in mind. I’m missing my in-person book clubs immensely these days! Even the one I am meeting with, we’re staying socially distant and not bringing food to share. It’s nice to see everyone but just not the same.
I wanted this pairing to contain two key ingredients: goat cheese and olives. Goat cheese because, when living on Jesus’ family compound, Ana takes over the care of a goat named Delilah. She becomes quite fond of her, and one of Ana's tasks is to make goat cheese. (It doesn’t sound like she ever quite nailed that, but nonetheless.) Olives because at the center of the compound was an olive tree, which was “where the family gathered to announce betrothals, pregnancies, and births, and to discuss matters of household business.” It was an important symbol, and of course, they ate lots of olives as well.
I found a recipe for marinated goat cheese spread with olives that sounded too good to resist. That it’s easy to get together was an added bonus.
First, I got my cheese out to let it come to room temperature. I, then, minced my garlic and prepped my herbs — I used a combination of fresh thyme and fresh oregano from my neighbors’ garden. I added them to a small bowl of olive oil along with pepper and chili flakes, and warmed the oil in the microwave for about 20 seconds.
To the warmed oil, I added lemon zest, balsamic vinegar and, of course, the olives. Even though I halved the recipe, I used the full amount of olives. I love olives and really wanted them to be a more prominent part of the dip. If you’re an olive fan, I highly recommend upping your ratio.
Once the goat cheese was somewhat spreadable — if I’m being honest, I probably should’ve waited longer, but it still worked out — spread it into a shallow dish and pour the olive oil mixture over the cheese. Allow the whole mixture to marinate for a few hours at room temperature.
I had purchased some crackers to eat it with, but on a whim, while it was marinating, I decided to make some homemade pita chips instead. This recipe was also very easy, but a little bit confusing if you read her post vs the actual recipe. I did find that following the recipe, for the most part was fine — the pita was well-covered in the oil and seasonings, for example — but the baking temperature was too low. I recommend doing about 8 minutes at 350 degrees F and then upping the temperature to 425 degrees F for another 5-10 minutes. (You can monitor the crispness just by color and feel.)
I was very glad I opted for the pita chips, which proved to be an excellent dipping vehicle for this tasty spread.
Marinated Goat Cheese Spread with Olives
- 2 5 oz. packages spreadable goat cheese
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 2-3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme or 1½ tbsp of dried thyme
- 10 kalmata olives chopped (add more if desired)
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- cracked black pepper
- zest of half lemon
- ¼ tsp chili flakes
- Combine herbs, garlic, pepper and chili flakes with olive oil in a small bowl and warm for about 20 seconds in microwave to blend the flavours.
- Then mix in balsamic vinegar, lemon zest and black olives.
- Allow goat cheese come to room temperature so it’s easy to spread then spread it into a shallow dish.
- Spoon olive oil and vinegar marinade over cheese and let it sit for a few hours.
- Before serving, garnish with more fresh herbs of choice and enjoy with crackers of choice or pita chips.
I hope you (and your book club) enjoy the spread! Let me know what you think of it and/or the book in the comments below.
What was one of your favorite books to discuss in book club? Did you like it or not?
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