“I feared the precious contents of my chest would be taken away, that my father would finally heed my mother and forbid me to write.”   

If you are a longtime fan of Sue Monk Kidd’s work like I am, The Book of Longings (Viking) will catch your interest at once. The very idea that Ana, the heroine of this novel, was the deeply loved wife of Jesus of Nazareth is intriguing. And in this author’s hands, the premise is plausible, compelling and convincing.

A MARRIAGE UNLIKE OTHERS OF ITS TIME

Add to the mix the fact that Ana, the fictive wife of Jesus, is young and passionate, with a strong sense of a woman’s place in society. From the age of 14, her impression of how life was lived versus how it ought to have been lived is heightened. Ana is not only aware of the invisibility of females in 17 CE, but she fiercely questions this and fights against patriarchal values.

Jesus is portrayed in the novel as a young man in search of his faith. From the start, along with being handsome, strong and soulful, he is a true believer in the best sense and compassionate to all. 

The author sets the stage for what is to come through Ana’s eyes. When she first meets Jesus, he is a laborer in search of work, a man who must earn to provide for his extended family. Although they marry, he and Ana intuit a future that won’t be quite the status quo. And while he is a good husband, a good son and earnest about his work, he wrestles with his calling as he tries to comprehend it. Ana is right there with him, certain that his feelings are founded and real. 

The setup is clever and makes Jesus accessible while the story remains Ana’s. Her experiences are told in detail; the author’s extensive research and affinity for the time is apparent from the start of the novel.

A WOMAN WHO DARES TO FOLLOW AMBITION

Ana is the only daughter of Matthias, Herod’s chief scribe. When she is young, her father encourages her to write, while her mother, a woman unhappy as wife and mother, is against Ana’s writing.

Because Ana’s family is privileged, her mother is keen on aborting Ana’s writings, focused instead on arranging a marriage for her daughter to Nathaniel. In terms of the marriage arrangement, this seems a good idea — Ana would certainly be marrying well.

But Nathaniel is a hateful, much older man, and Ana is quite relieved when he dies before their wedding. The twist here is that Ana meets Jesus at the same time that she becomes engaged to Nathaniel, and there is an instant attraction.

Ana and Jesus are from such disparate backgrounds, but they are bonded because they are both outcasts. She is labeled a widow, a title that bears disdain, and his paternity is in question — another damning situation. Their marriage is an adjustment for Ana, and her move to the poor section of Nazareth to live with Jesus’s family requires fortitude. 

MORE THAN ONE UNCONVENTIONAL WOMAN

Ana’s mentor and guide is her aunt Yaltha, who had suffered years ago at the hands of her cruel and violent husband. She relinquished her small daughter in order to escape, and Ana is a surrogate daughter to her.

Ana appreciates Yaltha’s wisdom and survival skills. The two are confidantes and travel together. Yaltha is unconventional enough that she dares to question why women are functions for men and do not exist beyond that. Ana could be considered Yaltha’s protegee except that Ana has been at this theory for a long while on her own. Ana’s writings encompass these beliefs. Yaltha embodies the results, the choices women make and the heart-wrenching price of freedom. The relationship between the two women evolves throughout the book and is a high point of the novel. 

Ana herself is moral and strong, driven to write and to prevail. Her love for Jesus has a modern quality and was clearly unconventional by the standards of the day. No spoiler here, but their view of having children is a part of their mutual contemporary take on marriage. Their respect and yearning for one another is palpable.

We are drawn to Ana’s “longings” because they exceed her love for her husband to encompass her identity. And over the years, as she matures and blossoms, we recognize the skills that she has honed and her acceptance of her husband’s destiny as well as her own. 

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Sue Monk Kidd was raised in the small town of Sylvester, GA, a place that deeply influenced the writing of her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. She graduated from Texas Christian University in 1970 and later took creative writing courses at Emory University and Anderson College, as well as studying at Sewanee, Bread Loaf and other writers conferences. In 2016, TCU conferred on her an honorary doctor of letters degree.

Kidd serves on the Writers Council for Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, Sandy, and dog, Barney.