Friday, February 07, 2014

People of the Book - Geraldine Brooks

I have a love/hate relationship with the novels of Geraldine Brooks.  I loved Year of Wonders, until the ending and then I hated it--felt that Brooks veered violently off-course. I loved parts of March, but loathed other parts.  However, I uniformly and without reserve loved People of the Book, which I finished last night.

For starters, People of the Book is my favorite kind of historical novel (the kind that Rutherford, Mitchner, and Uris write/wrote).  It fictionally traces the story of a real object, in this case an illustrated Jewish prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, that was created in 14th century Spain and ended up in Bosnia.  The Haggadah came close to being destroyed many times--during the Spanish Inquisition, during the Nazi invasion of Europe, and during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.  The main character, Hanna Heath, is an ancient documents specialist from Australia who is hired to evaluate and restore the book when it surfaces during the Bosnian War, but her story is interrupted regularly as Brooks traces the book back in time as Hanna finds clues within the manuscript that tell its story and that of the people who loved it, saved it, created it, and treasured it.  These include a white hair, wine stains, blood stains, water stains, and a butterfly wing.

I found each story along the journey to be stand-alone intriguing as well as integral to the overall story, and I loved visiting the various locales: 1990s Sarajevo, 1940 Sarajevo, 1894 Vienna, 1609 Venice, 1492 Tarragona (Spain), 1480 Seville.

Here's the map from the beginning of the book, which I found informative and lovely and referred to regularly whilst reading.

I especially liked the overarching theme that Brooks developed around the stories of people who encountered the Haggadah over time--some were Christians, some Jews, some Muslims, but regardless of their religion, they respected the artistic achievement of the book and the culture significance it carried. 

In People of the Book, Brooks celebrates what we share as humans, rather than what tears us apart when we identify solely with our tribe.  My only quibble--and with Brooks I always seem to have a quibble--I really had a hard time swallowing the character of Hanna's mother.  She reminded me so much of Leonard's mother on The Big Bang Theory that I just couldn't take her seriously as a real character.  Other than that, great book--great writing--great interrelated stories that move through time.

To further whet your appetite, here is an illustration from the Sarajevo Hagggadah that figures into the plot of the story:

This book is part of my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.


  1. I also loved this one. I don't have the same amount of quibbles with Brooks as you but I've also been avoiding March because I haven't read Little Women (I know what happens of course). I also loved tracing that book through history. Girl in Hyacinth Blue has a similar set up, following a painting through history. It didn't grab me the same way, but some of the chapters were particularly good, and the vignettes were certainly pleasant reading.

  2. I have the same reaction to her novels - and I loved this one as well! All those different peoples' lives, tied to or touched by this beautiful object. I haven't gotten her most recent, though I've read good things about it. I recently came across a non-fiction book of hers, Foreign Correspondence, about the pen pals she had as a child & meeting them years later.

  3. I have a copy of this book and looking back on my blog I see that in December 2008 it was among the books I'd listed to read in 2009 - I still haven't read it! I loved 'March', so I was keen to read more by Brooks. ~This year I hope I'll get round to it!!

  4. I have a love/hate--or maybe more of a like/hate relationships with her books, too. I enjoy parts of them, but there's always something that ends up annoying me. But this book is the exception and my favorite of hers that I've read. I thought it was solid throughout and often very good. I can't remember anything about it that particularly annoyed me--other than maybe a vague memory of an action sequence toward the end? I'll have to reread my own review to see!

  5. Great commentary on this book.

    This one sounds terrific. It seems like it ties certain elements together that I tend to like. I have always found that stories connecting people across space and time because of their association with an object to be fascinating. The historical and cultural aspects of this one also make it sound well worthwhile.

  6. This sounds like a book I'd like.

    Joy's Book Blog

  7. I love the historical sections of this book. I was less sold on the modern story but still liked it a lot. By the way, I felt exactly the same way about March but then I always attributed that to having always held Mr. March in such high regard because of my love of Little Women.

  8. I've never read G. Brooks before, but it sounds like this is the book of hers to read first.

  9. I didn't like March although thought it cleverly done. Funny story, however - a friend in my book group came back from vacation several years ago and found dead flowers tucked inside her front door with a note that said, "Congratulations on your Pulitzer!" Perplexed, she called the florist and found out that Geraldine and her talented husband Tony were renting a house several doors down for the semester! She went over to apologize for not having been home to correct the misdelivery and Tony offered her some champagne from their celebrations!

    1. What a wonderful story! I really enjoyed Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising, which I read shortly before I read March. Somewhat coincidental since I was reading a lot about the Civil War at the time.