Kidd is an award-winning and number one bestselling author of books such as The Secret Life of Bees. She is also known for her groundbreaking work on religion and feminism, and ... she lives in North Carolina. Given her history as a writer, The Book of Longings falls right into line with what she has done previously in this regard and is told from the perspective of Ana, a young woman living in Sepphoris, a small town in Galilee near Nazareth in the first century BC, who meets a young 20-year-old Jesus in a local cave where Jesus is praying and Ana is hiding her scrolls and writing materials from her controlling parents and where she falls in love with him at first sight.
In a book that is foremost a love story, it is also an imagined and fictional account of what the life of Jesus might have looked like during his short lifetime. In that sense, Kidd gives us a realistic portrayal of the life of Jesus, his family and compatriots. But even moreso, I think that Kidd’s new book is the author telling the untold stories of certain females in history. In this case, the stories of those women who were essential to the person of Jesus of Nazareth and/or played major roles in the biblical history of his life and times.
Following the chronology of the Jesus story as laid out in the New Testament, we get the full monty of those years as a result of Kidd’s extensive research and detail. In a history that has been told to us by men, we get a more and much needed feminist perspective as we learn about the identity and early life of Judas before his betrayal. We are privy to the ambitions and narcissism of Herod Antipas. We learn of Jesus’ relation to and time with John the Baptist and then Jesus taking on John’s role when John is captured and imprisoned by Herod — by taking up the activist work of non-violent protest against the Roman state. But all of this, and more, is told through the eyes and mind of Ana and her interactions with all these people as a result of her love for and eventual marriage to Jesus.
In the early pages of the book, Ana, who is the daughter of the number one Scribe in the court of Herod Antipas, is described by Kidd as “a student, an ink maker, a composer of words, a collector of forgotten stories.” She is, at the outset, writing a book about the women who have been mislaid, misremembered and abused by either the Roman or the Jewish societies. She is smart and she is fiesty. Yet she is also compassionate and loving and her many loves and her compassion know no bound. While she is a good, or even a perfect match for Jesus, she is also something of a mentor and some of the words that are attributed to Jesus in the New Testament originally come from the mouth of young Ana. Kidd is not shy about saying at one point that “great sages had female teachers.” In this sense, there is a comparison to other well-known and more modern literary figures such as T.S. Eliot, Percy Bysshe Shelly and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had literary wives who also served as the famous men’s editors and probably even their revisionists.
“I didn’t know what I would write. Words engulfed me. Torents and floodwaters. I couldn’t contain them, nor could I release them. But it wasn’t words that surged through me, it was longing. It was love of him,” she writes of her early love for Jesus and then goes on to say, “I dipped my pen. When you love, you remember everything. The way his eyes rested on me for the first time. The yarns he held in the market, fluttering now in hidden places in my body. The sound of his voice on my skin. The thought of him like a diving bird in my belly. I had loved others ... but not more than I loved words. Jesus had put his hand to the latch and I was flung open.” Good stuff. With writing like this in The Book of Longings, Kidd takes us right back 2,000 years and we get to walk in Ana’s and Jesus’ shoes, or sandals as it were. And we walk with them for 11 years of life together learning their lifestyle and the history of the ancient world of the Nabataean Kingdom there on the Mediterranean Sea not all that far from Egypt.
As the story progresses, we eventually get to the denouement from Ana’s perspective as Jesus sets out on his well-known journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem. “Then he rose and, opening the door, stared toward the valley with the same deep, pure gaze he’d cast on me. I went to stand beside him and looked in the same direction as he, and it seemed for an instant I saw the world as he did, orphaned and broken and staggeringly beautiful, a thing to be held and put back right.” With these thoughts from Ana, and with no end-of-book spoiler from me, Jesus begins his journey south. And the rest, as they say, is history.