People of the Book — Discussion by Chris and Carole

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Before Chris and I started Get Your English On, we would often read a book together and discuss it. A very small book club, if you will. We haven't done that in a while — the blog and our day jobs keep us pretty busy — and we decided that we missed doing it. Along comes Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, and we were off and reading. Actually, it took us a little while to clear our respective piles of books so that we were both able to read the book at the same time. We set March 1 as the day to start.

Our expectations for this book were pretty high, having loveloveloved March and Year of Wonders. Seeing her in person two years ago at the Fall for the Book Festival was fascinating—she talked about her current work in progress, a book based on a true story about a Muslim who saves a valuable Jewish haggadah from destruction.

When the book came out, Chris was able to see her again and talk to her about the book. We gleefully dove into the book, checking in with each other periodically to see where the other was. Chris and I take great pains not to discuss anything that gives away the story if one of us gets ahead. Don't you hate it when people simply cannot restrain themselves from telling you what they know?

The book is actually a literary investigation with book conservator Hanna trying to determine where this book as been. She discovers several disparate elements either on the pages themselves or tucked into the folios. A white hair, a wine stain, dried salt, and an insect wing. What could they possibly do to inform Hanna about the people involved with this book? Brooks' approach is to alternate between Hanna's investigation in the present and a time in the book's past.

When we finished, we chatted at length about it. Here are some of our impressions:

Hanna’s character compared to the people of the book; her character’s actions—did they ring true? Did she lack dimension?

Chris: Of all of the characters in this book, Hanna's character was the least interesting. It was flat and ugly, weaving through so much that had nothing to do with the haggadah. The others all were speculations in comparison to what they gave the book. Hanna's was modern, scattered and the least likable. Her relationship with her mother was very unpleasant, which arrested in her teen years as a form of rebellion. Her mother did not deny her a father; Nature took care of that. What Hanna's mother did was deny her a family, compatriots in her battle against her mother. When she did meet them, she turned away from her mother entirely. I wonder if, had she not met the Sharanskys, if she would have broken with her mother. And yet, when the most devastating event of her professional life occurs, she forgives them.

Carole: I agree that Hanna's life in the present day isn't nearly as rich as the other People of the Book — the people from the book's past really capture our attention. Hanna often left me with more questions than answers. I agree with Chris too that her reactions to people are inconsistent. She can't forgive her mother, but she too easily forgives others. Her relationships with people, romantic and otherwise, did not ring true for me. I wonder if Brooks treats Hanna more superficially than the characters from the past deliberately to establish a strong contrast.

It really struck me how the people of the book were often young girls in extraordinary circumstances who had been strongly influenced by their fathers, compared to Hanna’s fatherless life.

Chris: Many of the other female characters were affected by their relationships with their fathers. One character can thank her father for nurturing her talent; another was a Kabbalist because her father loved and lived Hebrew, Judaism, and mysticism. Can we say Hanna was who she was because of her father, or his absence, or his genes? I can't say because Hanna measures herself only in relation to her mother, or being her mother's opposite. What a sad and mixed-up woman, especially at the end when she changes her name as a way to abandon her mother and meld with the father and the father's family she was denied.

Carole: Hanna's influence by her father seems to be felt merely by its absence and as something by which to punish her mother. When Hanna does learn more about her father, I don't get the sense that she is open to his influence.

The need for the forgery at the end; Hanna’s reaction to that betrayal compared to her mother’s betrayal of trust. Which one marked her more significantly?

Chris: Had I been raised by Hanna's mother, I don't know which one would have affected me more personally. Being the polar opposite of her mother seemed more important to her than being who she was. In that light, I can see why Hanna was more marked by her mother's betrayal than her father figure and Sarajevan lover. However, it seems weird. Her livelihood was taken from her, her reputation was destroyed, and she left the world she loved the best, stumbling instead headlong into her father's world, which again was the opposite of her mother.

Carole: I didn't feel the need for the betrayal of her mentor and lover for the story to unfold. I thought that was an extraneous element that served only to give Hanna more depth as a character, but ultimately, I didn't feel like she had the richness of the People of the Book.

Brooks’ deft handling of sexuality throughout the book—subtle yet extremely provocative.

Chris: In short, I can say I was surprised by Hanna's quick bedding of the Sarajevan who saved the haggadah from destruction. She was freaked out by the war-torn country but went to his place every night rather than the relative safety of her hotel?

I also found the Austrian's observation of his wife's infidelity very moving and bizarre: the details by which he identified her infidelity were so subtle, only a man who loved his wife enough to memorize her would have noticed. However, his carnal attraction in light of this and his need to be with his mistress confused me (and shows me I am nowhere near that level of, um, sophistication).

In the same vein, I expected the Venetian rabbi's unspeakable problem to be sexual in nature. His shame and the author's almost loving caress of the rabbi's desires instead suggested to me an unnatural appetite more along the lines of "a love that dare not speak its name." However, it is a good lesson: that of which we are most ashamed usually isn't the worst thing someone else can imagine.

Carole: I was actually shocked when I came to the part of the book where Hanna sleeps with the librarian. I actually went back and read the previous few pages to see if I had missed something in Hanna's character to indicate that she would do something like that. Brooks just says that she doesn't form lasting attachments, but sheesh, learning someone's last name might be nice.

I was taken with how Brooks says so much without going into every groan of desire, every libidinous thought. Her subtle revelations of her characters' desires were much more sensual that going into graphic detail.

Favorite characters?

Chris: The character I liked the most was Little Bird. She was her own woman, despite everyone's insistence to the contrary. Her family saw her only in relation to their own needs. She, in contrast, continued to be herself. She loved her family and would not abandon her brother, even if the tefillin she gave him was his undoing. She helped bring her nephew into the world, protected him, immersed him (in the single scariest passage of the book!) and kept him safe (we presume).

Carole: That passage did have me riveted — I was praying that she didn't do what I was most afraid of her doing. I also liked the African girl's character who had learned her painting skills from her father--she never dishonored his memory despite the betrayals she faced in her own life. By putting herself in the painting and writing the words, she transcends those around her and brings honor to her family.

Chris and I agree that Geraldine Brooks remains on our respective short list of authors who have not disappointed us. Each of her books has been quite different from the others she's written. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

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