It is poor form — poor feminist form, especially — to define a woman by the men in her life. And Ana, the central figure of Sue Monk Kidd’s sprawling fourth novel, “The Book of Longings,” is certainly her own person: quick-witted, rebellious, a first-century writer of insistent ambition.
But come on. Ana’s gentle husband is Jesus of Nazareth. Her cherished big brother is Judas, Jesus’s firebrand friend. These guys, so familiar, so human, are the hook that draws us in.
What keeps us there, though, is the vividness of the world that Kidd (“The Secret Life of Bees”) conjures, peopling it with boldface names from the New Testament and freshly invented characters she imagines just as fully — Ana, our fictional narrator, principal among them.
Beginning in 16 C.E. in Sepphoris, a city in Galilee, and roaming as far as Egypt, “The Book of Longings” is her story. She tells it in part to challenge the handed-down account of her husband’s life, in which she does not appear.
But it is also simply an assertion of self, perfectly in keeping with the female-centric tales that she has inked onto papyrus since she was a girl — her education the gift of her wealthy father, the local ruler’s chief scribe, indulging her hunger for knowledge.
“The one text Father had forbidden me was the Song of Solomon, a poem of a woman and her lover. Naturally, therefore, I’d sought it out and read it four times.”
Yaltha, Ana’s widowed aunt from glittering Alexandria, is the one who recognizes her extraordinariness and encourages her creative voice. To leave a mark as an author is Ana’s deepest longing, yet to do that she must be free to write — a privilege that would be her husband’s to grant or deny after she leaves her father’s house.
Ana is 14 when she first spies Jesus across a crowded marketplace. A stonemason and a woodworker, a peacemaker but not yet a prophet, he is there with his younger sister, Salome. Ana is there with her parents, decked out for inspection by the cruel troll of a man they mean to make her marry. But the humble stranger with the handsome eyes and callused hands is the one she wants.
Is our pandemic-shadowed present the wrong time to say thank goodness for the fever sickness that soon descends on Sepphoris? In its wake, the field is clear for Ana and Jesus to marry, and you will root for them all the way.
He is a lovely guy — playful and compassionate, brave and inquisitive, with a warm, strong physicality. More than once, we watch him emerge after a dip in the water and shake his head like a dog to dry off. It’s very charming.
But, full disclosure, you might cringe each time he calls Ana by the pet name he bestows on her, Little Thunder.
The awkward nickname is an authorial intrusion — part of an attempt to establish Ana, later in life, as the writer of a real-world historical document, “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.”
There are other places where Kidd’s hand is in evidence: some too-convenient plot twists, one of which reunites Ana with a childhood friend; the frequent, unnecessary repetition of information, as if the reader couldn’t be trusted to follow along; and the dallying pace at which Ana and Yaltha dispatch an urgent errand in Alexandria, allowing us to glimpse that city’s ancient glories.
“The Book of Longings” does make clear sense of the politics of the time, and the threat that Jesus poses to the Roman occupiers. It also has all of the advantages of a new story borrowing the framework of a classic. When Ana and Jesus arrive at his family’s compound in Nazareth, there is a quality of pleasant reunion to spending time with his mother, Mary. In her kindness and good humor, you can see where her son got his own.
For all the delight that Ana and Jesus take in each other, their day-to-day scramble for survival leaves no time for her intellectual and creative life. He, always close to God, starts to feel the need to preach, and she realizes with growing discomfort that she married a revolutionary, who in turn is married to his movement. But it is not relationship discord that sends her fleeing, with Yaltha, to Alexandria.
This is a book-club-friendly novel; meet-ups over Zoom are surely in the offing. One likely topic is the long stretches that Ana spends in quarantine, her freedom of movement temporarily circumscribed: 80 days one time, a year and a half another.
The only confinement for public health reasons, though, is in Sepphoris, when the fever sickness strikes. Right now, that section of the story feels uncanny — like a mirror image of our lockdown selves, but from 2,000 years ago: “The entire city was closed up tight as a fist. Father did not venture to the palace. Mother withdrew to her quarters. ... ‘Keep out of God’s sight,’ Mother cautioned me.”
Then at last the danger ebbs, and Ana and her family tiptoe gingerly back into ordinary life.
So will we when the coronavirus fades. In the meantime, “The Book of Longings” is diverting company.
THE BOOK OF LONGINGS
By Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, 432 pp., $28.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.