When I saw in late 2019 that Sue Monk Kidd was scheduled to release a book about the forgotten wife of Jesus, I internally groaned. There are so many ways that a book like this could go wrong. The shear number of historical, theological and interpretive choices leaves a veritable minefield of possibilities for how this book could be a mess. But after several of my girl friends from seminary read it and said “Cara, you have to read this!” I caved and started The Book of Longings on audiobook. The narrator and protagonist was given a whispy, weak voice and I quickly put the audiobook down before it ruined it for me. Several months passed and I picked up the hardcopy and was instantly drawn into Ann’s story.
I loved that Jesus was a secondary character written into the life of Ana, a woman who was convicted that her purpose in life was larger than childbearing and domestic work. An only child of a wealthy advisor to Herod Antipas she convinces her father to allow her a tutor to teach her to read and write. This is the life Ana is called to—one of writing, theology and philosophy, one where she can write the forgotten stories of women not just from the Torah but in her own life. Women who have suffered at the decisions of men and yet discover an inner resilience and truth.
I loved that Kidd offers us a feminist protagonist and an intimate look into female friendship and interpersonal politics of survival during this time period. There is a sense of kinship between Ana and her aunt Yaltha that contains nuance and depth of female companionship. I loved the way this story brought to the forefront stories of women from the fringes of the Biblical text in a way that didn’t feel corny or forced but instead offered depth. Juxtaposed to this tender handling of female stories is I appreciated the way Kidd creates a connection between Ana’s story and the tradition of the desert mothers and fathers—the mystic and scholarly tradition of the Jude-Christian tradition that often doesn’t get enough attention.
This is not going to be a book for everyone, Kidd balances the fierce with the tender, gives a wide birth to the character of Jesus and centers on what it means to be a woman with goals and aspiration in a world that sees women only as property. The theology is progressing, imagining a Jesus that is comfortable with birth control, women studying and writing and Ana herself is a religious product of her time, mixing the different elements of Judaism and mythologies of the time. However, if you enjoy historical fiction, feminist critique, if you are comfortable with the human aspects of Jesus and enjoy a more progressive faith, you will find this an enjoyable read.