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The Book of Longing, by Sue Kidd Monk. 

January 11, 2020

The Book of Longing
The Book of Longing, by Sue Kidd Monk.  Viking, 2020. 433 pages

Forthcoming, April 2020.

 5 stars

The provocative story of a Jewish woman and her search for her own destiny, including her marriage to a very humanized Jesus before he undertook his ministry.

Sue Kidd Monk is a popular writer, a writer who has openly expressed her own expanding religious quest. In her books, her women characters are drawn to deeper beliefs and to finding a destiny of their own. In her newest book, she pushes those themes back into Biblical times.  She was born in 1948 in Sylvester, Georgia, where she grew up.  She attended college at Texas Christian University, graduating with a nursing degree.  While pursuing her nursing profession, she began her own religious journey with the writings of Thomas Merton.  Her first books were written in the 1990s and focused on her own spiritual growth and her move beyond traditional Christianity.   In 2001, she published The Secret Life of Bees, the story of a young white girl nurtured and changed by older African American women.  It remains her best known work; although she has gone on to write additional novels, often featuring a woman’s journey.

The major character of The Book of Longing is Ana, the daughter of a prominent Jewish scribe who allowed her to read and write.  She was a rebellious, abrasive child, at war with the limitations that she faced as a woman, especially her parents’ attempts to marry her off or give her to the king. The first section of the book depicts her struggles against her confinement.  Her escape came when she met and married the twenty-year-old Jesus and went to Nazareth to live in his family. When he was called to preach, she went to Alexandra to escape her own arrest.  She continued her devotion for him, eventually finding a community where her writing was valued.

Initially I was bothered by Monk’s retelling of the stories of Jesus, Mary, Judas, and other individuals from the Christian narrative.  I wasn’t scandalized as much as annoyed.  I sensed that Monk was asking readers to view the Christian stories in a radically new manner, one in which Jesus is a man, in love and sexually involved with a woman.  His commitment to her was only challenged by God’s call.  Whenever I encountered the Biblical names, I was distracted by Monk’s challenging of my memory of the traditional story.  Gradually I became more and more caught up in Ana’s narrative and found the book very meaningful. That is my typical reaction to Monk’s novels.

Longing is more about Ana than about Jesus.  As she comes to interact with Jesus, Ana’s sense of own destiny grows.  She sees herself and Jesus as alike in their calls to be more than ordinary.  She is destined to write as he is destined to preach.  Like other wives, she is hurt when he is called to do greater work.  She does not, however, slip quietly into oblivion, but sees her writings honored.

Although some readers will be upset and accuse Monk of being irreligious, I recommend The Book of Longings as an imaginative alternative to the Biblical account.  One in which a woman follows her own quest for a purposeful and spiritual life. It can be read as a supplement rather than a rejection of the stories we have traditionally believed.

I recommend this book highly especially for readers not afraid of of expanding religious visions.

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