If you are a fan of the fabulous book The Red Tent, you will like Jerusalem Maiden by Talia Carner. This book does not have the epic feel of The Red Tent but it is a great historical story of an Orthodox Jewish woman growing up in a very traditional household in pre- Israel, the Ottoman Empire, in the early 1900’s.
Esther grows up in a very traditional Jewish home where girls are reared to get married at age 14 and fulfill their life’s mission of reproducing. Throughout the first part of the book, it is clear that, while observant, Esther is not destined to follow the path her parents want. Carner does a masterful job of describing the poverty in Meah Shearim, where Esther and her family live. You literally feel their hunger and the abject poverty.
Spoiler Alert– She discovers that she is a fabulous artist. Through the help of a lovely French teacher, she begins to experiment with her art, signing her pieces, “Jersualem Maiden.”
“In this stolen hour at Mademoiselle Thibaux’s dining room table, she could draw without being scolded for committing the sin of idleness, G-d forbid.”
Through a series of events, it becomes clear that Esther must forgoe her art to pursue what she believes is her destiny- to get married. She decides that the best way to do that is to marry her cousin who wants to be a musician. They naively believe that their union would allow each other to pursue their art. Again, here you feel her anguish vividly as she decides to go down a path she doesn’t want.
Esther’s parents trick her and when married, she lifts her veil to reveal that she didn’t marry her cousin but a wealthy merchant who can improve the family’s coffers. Esther tries to be the good wife and mother but continues to miss her art.
She travels to Paris to surprise her traveling husband and finds that he isn’t still in Paris. While waiting for him there, she reconnects with her French art teacher and with her art. She also finds true love.
The book is cleverly written so that even though she is cheating on her husband, the provocative love affair seems to make sense. The book really is at its best at the end when Esther is old and her granddaughter comes into the story.
This is a very powerful book with amazing descriptive writing. Carner does an outstanding job of conjoring the time and setting of the book. Any fan of historical fiction will adore this book!
Harper Collins, via NetGalley.com, provided a review copy of this book for this post. All opinions are my own.
What are you reading and where are you going?