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The Jewish Community Library has chosen Anna Solomon’s new novel “The Book of V.” for its next One Bay One Book program, a popular, community-wide offering served up annually by S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.
Published in May, Solomon’s third novel follows several women in different time periods whose lives offer interpretive windows into the Biblical stories of Esther and Vashti.
One character is Lily Rubenstein, a young wife and mother in contemporary Brooklyn, New York, who struggles internally with her chosen status as a stay-at-home parent and as her husband’s second wife.
Their two daughters’ repeated requests for her to read aloud a picture book about Esther, and the need to make their costumes for a Purim celebration, kick off the novel’s central inquiry in Chapter 1: How are we to understand the complicated story of Esther today? And how are women’s lives like, or unlike, that of the Jewish teenager who became a queen against her will?
Another character, the young wife of an ambitious, young U.S. senator in the early 1970s, wonders if she really chose her own marriage. Vivian (“Vee”) Barr was born into WASP privilege, making her selection of a mate obvious and automatic. But Vee’s identity in relation to her husband is thrown into question when he asks her to do something in the interests of his career that is every bit as outrageous as King Ahasuerus’ demand of Vashti.
Additionally, Vee’s civic complacency is disturbed when a cross is burned on the lawn of her best friend, who has married a Jew. With the burgeoning women’s movement swirling around her, Vee wades deep into a process of self-definition that asks, radically, what she needs to feel whole, and whether she can stand on her own.
The narratives of Lily and Vee are interspersed with an imaginative interpretation of the story of Vashti and Esther, anchoring the novel.
Esther’s predecessor, Queen Vashti, is shrouded in mystery. (“I don’t know what happened to Vashti. The book doesn’t say. Nobody knows,” Lily explains lamely to her little daughters in the contemporary segment.)
But when Solomon recreates the ancient world at the height of Babylonian power — when Esther’s people were a hardscrabble, migratory lot, and when Esther finds herself sequestered in the royal palace — it becomes pretty clear what happens to women who disobey.
Esther’s extraordinary (“superhuman” would not be an overstatement) efforts to warn her Jewish tribe about their imminent destruction is heartrending because she wins back her stolen integrity at the cost of self-sacrifice.
The book “gives voice to generations of women bookending at least 2½ millennia,” said Noa Albaum, program coordinator for the Jewish Community Library. “These voices call attention to, and speak out against, societal structures of power, domination, and oppression. The characters who hope for and champion the desire for partnership-based societies, despite the obstacles they face, provide hope and inspiration for Lily and for the reader. And they remind us that as far as we’ve come, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Commenting on the book’s relevance to the continuing social struggles around women’s issues, Howard Freedman, the JCL director, said, “This year, as we mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, as well as the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I think it’s especially fitting to cast an eye on where we are as a society, in both the past and present, when it comes to gender equity — both in our institutions and in our private relationships.”
“The Book of V.” also provides an opportunity to bring a fresh eye to the Book of Esther. In a piece in Tablet, the author Solomon noted that “what seems a clear-cut tale of good and evil is not so clear when you look a little closer … All the categories that seemed so fixed when I was a kid turn out to be far more fluid, as most of us — if we’re honest — know them in fact to be.”
Solomon pays particular attention to the enigmatic figure of Vashti, who was banished — possibly killed — by Ahasuerus after she refused to appear without clothes before the king and his drunken companions. Commentators have long sought to fill in the details, and Solomon offers her own complex and sympathetic take on this and the intertwining of Vashti and Esther’s experiences.
Events and discussions relating to “The Book of V.” will take place (virtually for now) via Bay Area synagogues and Jewish institutions through June 2021. The Jewish Community Library also will offer a variety of free, related public programs focusing on topics such as women in the Bible and Jews and the women’s movement. An event with Solomon is being planned, as well.
One Bay One Book, a program that encourages people to join in conversation around a single book and its themes, began in 2012-13 with Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” Previous selections include Goldie Goldbloom’s “On Division,” Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” Dalia Sofer’s “The Septembers of Shiraz,” Primo Levi’s “The Periodic Table” and Dara Horn’s “A Guide for the Perplexed.”
For more information about this year’s book and events, or to join the One Bay One Book mailing list, visit onebayonebook.com.