The Red Tent
by Anita Diamant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Red Tent / 0-312-19551-6
I'm not usually a big fan of Biblical novels, because unfortunately sometimes authors use the source material as a crutch to produce a poor story, paper thin characters, and unlikely plot propulsion, and still expect readers to buy the result. However, Diamat manages to avoid this by filling in the available gaps in the Biblical story of Leah, Rachel, and Dinah with a rich history and mythology that rings plausibly true.
Diamat's biggest success is by discarding much of the negative portrayals of the women central to the narrative; here, Leah and Rachel do not hate each other so much as have a (relatively) normal sibling rivalry relationship. Leah comes across as very sympathetic; here she is a determined, strong woman - a good cook able to please her husband's palates and an able mother. The blame for the "wedding switch" is laid entirely on Jacob's shoulders - Diamat emphasizes the unlikelihood that Jacob wouldn't immediately realize his beloved Rachel had been substituted for Leah. Jacob, in his complicity, effectively purchases two good wives (and then four), for the "price" of steady employment.
Diamat also discards the idea that the women meekly discarded their life-long idols for this new god brought to them by their outlander husband. (This much seems to be rooted in fact: it is clear that the 'queen of heaven' was worshiped by Hebrew women for centuries, and even mention of the practice is made in the Bible.) The women make a good show of pretense to their new husband, but see no reason to discard their family's theology and social values just because their new husband says so. The women value the feminine divine and completely disdain the 'sacred hymen' theology as having only value to men - as proof that a girl cannot be pregnant with another man's child - but none whatsoever to women as it increases the pain of the wedding night.
Most boldly, Diamat discards the idea that Dinah's lover was her rapist and instead maintains that the story was a ploy by her brothers, made up to allow them to slaughter the men in the city. This is nicely handled, as well as the fact that Dinah is never mentioned in the Bible again: she has left her family and emigrated. Unfortunately, this is where the novel breaks down as the abuse and abandonment Dinah suffers at the hands of her adopted mother-in-law seems to be handled unnaturally. It seems out-of-character for the wise older woman to hate Dinah so passionately for things not her fault; in this culture of men and brutality, it seems likely that this woman would realize that this was no more Dinah's fault than her own. Of course, people are rarely completely logical, but the narrative stumbles enough to seem more like a plot device than a natural response.
In the end, this novel is deeply intriguing and far better than most, but the last third of the novel does ring a tiny bit hollow at times.
~ Ana Mardoll
View all my reviews