I occasionally just dig through what my library has to offer (both online and in person, though not often in person these days. Still trying to be careful until my daughter can be vaccinated…), and that’s how I discovered The Book of V by Anna Solomon (Henry Holt & Company, 2020). A story that combines the narratives of a woman struggling with the demands of motherhood in modern-day New York, a Rhode Island senator’s wife in the 70’s, and the biblical Queen Esther? That sounded interesting. On my last library trip, this was the first time this book had been in when I checked the shelves, so into my bag it went.
The Book of V is a multiple-narrative novel that braids together the stories of a group of women, wrapping itself fully around the story of Queen Esther, who, as the story goes, took a major chance to save the Jewish people, her people. But maybe that’s not exactly how the story went. And what happened to Vashti, the beautiful woman who was queen before her?
Lily is a woman in her mid-40’s, struggling with two young daughters and her lack of identity after leaving her career to stay at home and focus on them. Her husband works long hours, there’s never *quite* enough money for them to feel totally comfortable, and Lily never feels as though she fits in with the other moms. Her attempts to connect with a local group of moms as she learns to sew Purim costumes for the girls is thwarted by her mother’s sudden illness, and all of this stress combines to her losing focus and heading into dangerous emotional territory.
Esther is a beautiful young Jewish girl offered up as a sacrifice to the king. No one truly knows where his wife went; Esther only knows she doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t want to have the chance to marry him, only wants to go back to her people, who are being persecuted by the villagers. The restrictions on her life mirror those placed on Vivian, a senator’s wife, whose marriage isn’t quite the picture-perfect match it looks like from the outside.
The Book of V tells the tale of how women’s lives continue to be defined by others’ expectations and demands, the struggle to live freely (at least emotionally, if not physically) and the difficulties of maintaining an identity of our own choosing.
This isn’t a straight retelling of the story of Esther; liberties have been taken and changes have been made, so if you’re looking for something more akin to The Red Tent, you’ll be disappointed. The Book of V skews far more literary than I usually read, and in that aspect, it wasn’t really the book for me. It’s very obviously a strong and well-written novel, but I’m just not a fan in general of literary fiction; the style always seems so detached to me. I prefer my fiction to be more emotionally available, with a little more humor and everyday life sprinkled in. Literary fiction always seems to include constant talk about affairs and immediately sizing every single side character up in terms of their sexual prowess. Is this a thing people do in real life? Do women go to the store and immediately start thinking about what the produce guy stocking the onions or the dude fixing the lights would be like in bed? Is everyone having an affair but me? *squints* I just have a really hard time relating to this particular style, and my inability to connect here is completely on me and has nothing to do with this particular book.
If you enjoy literary fiction however, especially multiple narratives, you may want to check this book out. The Book of V is definitely well-written and thought-provoking, asking deep questions about feminism, identity, and women’s roles and places in society, both in the past and in modern day.