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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Garden of Ruth by Eva Etzioni-Halevy

The Garden of Ruth by Eva Etzioni-Halevy. New York: Plume (Penguin Group), 2007. ISBN: 978-0-452-28673-3

This book purports to be a novel based on the life of the Biblical woman, Ruth, grandmother to the greatest of the Israelite kings, King David, himself, and famous daughter-in-law to Naomi, whose poetic pledge is often sung at weddings to this day:

Entreat me not to leave thee,
Or to return from following after thee;
For whither thou goest, I will go;
And where thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people shall be my people,
And Thy God, my God.

But the book starts out telling the entirely fictitious story of another young woman, Osnath by name, from the generation of David and his brothers, who comes to live near their family, and is ravished first by Eliab, David's oldest brother, then falls in love with David himself, and expects to marry him, but is thwarted when King Saul gives his daughter, Michel, to David to wife.

Osnath becomes obsessed by the story of Ruth, and wants to uncover every detail, and since she is literate, a rare accomplishment for a woman in her time, she hopes to write the story of Ruth for posterity. But, she discovers, there is a dreadful dark secret involved in the story that no one wants her to find out, let alone write about. Ruth, herself, when we finally get her story, is also in the dark about part of the secret.

Those of us who know the story of Ruth, as told in the book of that name in the Bible, know that Ruth is from the neighboring kingdom of Moab. Naomi and her husband flee there with their two sons, in time of famine. Ruth marries one of the sons, along with another Moabite girl, who marries the other son. Later Naomi's husband and both of her sons, die, leaving all three women widows.

Naomi determines to return to her native Israel, and Ruth is equally determined to go with her, uttering the famous song I quoted above when Naomi tries to persuade her to stay in her native land.

In this book, the author creates several twists and turns to the story that are entirely fabricated from her own imagination. They are not impossible, just not supported by the Biblical version of the story. She has another Israelite come to Moab and seduce Ruth into an inproper sexual relationship. Then, when Ruth and Naomi get to Israel, who should this man turn out to be other than the man who has a closer relationship to Naomi than does Boaz, their benefactor. By Jewish law, this man should marry Ruth and restore Naomi's inheritance thereby. But he brutally refuses, leaving Boaz free to marry Ruth, which he does.

So what is the terrible secret that no one wants Osnath to find out? Well, I won't tell you, since that would be to act as a spoiler. But to be terribly honest, I've already forgotten. It just wasn't that dramatic, despite the enormous buildup it is given in the story.

So, I would have to describe this book as somewhat flawed, not entirely faithful to the original, but at least partially plausible. And it is certainly well written, and kept me turning the pages, if ultimately it was a bit disappointing. Definitely recommended for anyone who enjoys fiction with a Biblical basis.

The author has also written a previous novel in this genre, The Song of Hannah, based on the story of another famous Biblical woman, which I've not read, but probably would, if given the opportunity. I'm enough of a fan of the "Biblical novel" genre to read any well-written examples I come across, of which this is certainly one. Even though a big part of it DOES read like a romance novel.

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