Article ID: JAR2107AK | By: Anne Kennedy

A Review of 

The Book of Longings: A Novel

by Sue Monk Kidd

(Viking, 2020)


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**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Book of Longings: A Novel**

“He reached out his hand, a laborer’s hand. Thick knuckles, calluses, his palm a terrain of hardships.”1 This is the moment Jesus enters the narrative of Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel, The Book of Longings. Ana, who (spoiler alert) becomes his wife after suitable trials and tribulations, has tumbled to the ground in a near faint in the marketplace of Sepphoris where she has just been affianced by her father to an elderly, repulsive scoundrel. It is the first century and Ana is the daughter of the chief scribe of Herod Antipas. She is fourteen years old, literate, precocious, full to the brim of longing to know and accept herself. As such, she is the ideal heroine for such a time as this. By which I do not mean the ancient time of Jesus, but our age, our time — the twenty-first century.

In The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd paints a monochromatic spiritual landscape, tediously rehearsing the contours of feminine longing. As the story unfolds, her characters near perfectly portray the values, the assumptions, the hopes, and the expectations of now.2 If a stranger to this place and time were to require a primer of the ideal person, I would hand her this book. Let’s look together at that cultural icon — not Jesus but Ana — and her journey to discover not just herself but “the largeness” within her that “would not shrink away.”3

Ana — Deceiver, Overcomer, and Mary Sue. My children recently introduced me to a name for a character type in entertainment — comics, movies, sitcoms, novels — that I kept seeing but lacked words to describe. The personality is called a ‘Mary Sue’ and is a technical term for, to quote Infobloom,

a character in a work of fiction who exists primarily for the purpose of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author. She plays a prominent role in the work, but she is notably devoid of flaws or a complex personality, and she usually represents the pinnacle of idealized perfection. All of the other characters love Mary Sue, because she is extraordinarily helpful, talented, beautiful, or unusual, and she often drives readers absolutely crazy because she is one-dimensional and too idealized to be realistic.4

The Urban Dictionary points out that the existence of a Mary Sue often ruins the work, usually because they are able to “defy logic to simply display how amazingly radiant they are.” Some authors will give the Mary Sue a flaw “that is actually just a stale trait in disguise.”5 Whether or not Sue Monk Kidd has wedged herself so forcibly into The Book of Longings, there can be no doubt that Ana as a personality is flat and lacks any character development. She faces no challenge that changes her from one kind of person to another. She never fails to fulfill any of her desires. All the other characters orbit around her to reveal her brilliant longing for herself.

Her “flaw,” which complicates only other people’s lives, is that she often lies and deceives those around her. As the daughter of an educated Herodian scribe, she has been taught to read and write, and she possesses a trunk full of her own self-authored scrolls. Preserving and propagating her own writing, from the first page to the last, is her chief concern. Such a weighty task necessitates both lying and subterfuge as she conceals her scrolls in the room of her aunt, and then in a cave. In the end, being an old woman, she buries them in the ground in Egypt. Besides her own writing, her most beloved possession is an incantation bowl in which she inscribes her longing for herself:

Rising, I took my incantation bowl to the small high window, where skeins of light fell. I rotated the bowl in a full circle, watching the words move inside it, rippling toward the rim. Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice. I gazed upon the prayer and the girl and the dove, and a sensation billowed in my chest, a small exultation like a flock of birds lifting all at once from the trees.6 (emphasis in original)

Part of Ana’s anxiety is that she has made a “graven image” of herself in the bowl. Improbably, she doesn’t worry about being stoned for breaking the law, rather, she is afraid that the image in the bowl will someday be destroyed. The image of herself is too precious to risk and so she disguises the bowl as a “waste pot” and hides it in her room.7 She ends up carrying this bowl and her scrolls back and forth as she travels around the then known world. The bowl is never seriously in danger, and neither is Ana, because the consequences of her lying never catch up with her. Through a phantasmic succession of events, she evades being married to the old man in the market, she avoids being raped by Herod, and she manages to meet Jesus because her parents allow her to roam around the Galilean desert with a servant. Once she is married to Jesus she brashly acclimatizes herself to his poverty. Using herbs, she successfully avoids having a baby, and when she finally does give birth, the child — Susanna — conveniently dies. In Egypt, she cleverly assists her aunt Yaltha to find a long-lost daughter, and then escapes to a monastic community called the Therapeutae. And finally, with impeccable timing, Ana escapes the Therapeutae in a coffin, arriving in Jerusalem just in time to see Jesus die on the cross. Though all her life is a tribulation, her own personality is never changed. Rather, her immutable and luminous true self is ever more rapturously displayed to herself.

“Born Again.” Ana’s relationship with Jesus is the means by which Kidd glorifies Ana. It would be too easy simply to write another novel about a strong independent woman fighting the patriarchy, doing down all the naysayers in her epic travail to find herself. And what better way to overcome centuries of socially constructed misogyny than to turn the old, tired patriarchal version of Jesus into the ideal modern man. In her note at the end of the book, Kidd writes that she

saw Ana not only as the wife of Jesus, but as a woman with her own quest — that of following her longings in pursuit of the largeness inside herself. I saw her, too, as a woman able to become not only Jesus’s wife, but his partner. The day Ana appeared, I knew one thing about her besides her name. I knew that what she wanted most was a voice. If Jesus actually did have a wife, and history unfolded exactly the way it has, then she would be the most silenced woman in history and the woman most in need of a voice. I’ve tried to give her one.8

In other words, in order that he not occupy a tangential place in the story, Kidd’s Jesus embodies the model modern male character who, though ambitious in his own right, primarily concerns himself with the self-actualization of all the women closest to him. Kidd’s Jesus, unlike the greater number of toxic male characters in the book, never once intrudes himself upon the longings of Ana for herself. This renders his character necessarily non-threatening.

Jesus’ crucial literary task is to help “free” Ana to find herself, though there is no indication that she wouldn’t have been able to if he had never appeared, so persistently does she actualize herself. In this way, Kidd subverts the classically Christian view of Jesus’ life and passion. For one, Ana’s romantic desire for Jesus transcends mere sex as she realizes that he will have spiritual power to enable her to find herself: “This deep, clear sense of him. We hadn’t exchanged a word, Jesus and I, but I felt the ripple of intimacy when his hand had clasped mine. It caused a voracious pining at the center of me. Not for him, I didn’t think. For myself. Yet a thought pushed into my mind, a sense that he was as wondrous as inks and papyrus, that he was as vast as words. That he could set me free.”9 When Susanna, dies, Jesus apologizes for not enabling Ana to be more herself: “I’m sorry, Little Thunder. I, too, have kept you from being yourself.”10 And, finally, while there are myriad examples, Kidd probably means for this to be the most controversial: “When he woke, even before he prayed the Shema, I described the dream to him that had caused me to trade my silver headband for the herbs. How could I keep it from him? ‘The newborn was myself!’ I exclaimed. A tiny shadow passed over his face — concern, it seemed, for what the dream augured for the future — then it passed. He said, ‘It seems you will be born again.’”11

In all of this, Ana is essentially her own savior, and the thing from which she is being saved is not sin or separation from God, but rather from not fully embracing who she is in herself. That is the great lack that she suffers, though it is not a lack, because she capably embraces herself in the opening lines of the novel. Jesus, then, is a means to an end. In the presence of the Mary Sue, he only basks in her inherent brightness:

I lift my copper mirror and gaze at my face as if to assure myself it was really I who accomplished that impossible feat, and as I do, a tiny pain pricks my right temple. I think it’s nothing more than the strain of thinking so hard, but then I’m engulfed by a curdling in my stomach and a searing headache, which is followed by a flash of light behind my eyes, a ferocious brightness that flares out and swallows the room. I stare, mesmerized, as it contracts into a red disk that hovers before my eyes. Inside it floats the image of my face, a precise reflection of what I’ve just seen in the mirror. It startles me with a blinding sense of my own existence: Ana who shines.12

In the final reckoning, the measure of all the characters in the book is whether they are for Ana or against her, and some are saved by seeing and accepting her.

Death, Be Not Bad. Kidd must be commended for attempting to write an exciting story that reimagines some tired and ubiquitous part of the cultural canon. Jesus has been so wearingly scrutinized that he makes as good a character as any to be employed as a literary device. Unhappily, Kidd is not able to transcend, nor challenge, the current beliefs about the innocence of the self, which is the death of great literature. Good stories elucidate the internal transformation of a character, from good to bad, or bad to good. All the best stories in the world imitate the narrative arc of Scripture, whereby the hero rescues the heroine from eternal destruction.13 While other kinds of plot devices can be compelling — the mystery story, for example — Kidd has invented the Disney version of Jesus and Ana. Because Ana is already good, she does not need to change. She suffers no death of any part of herself. In fact, even the death of Jesus on the cross is no death, at least not for her.

At the cross Ana reacts to the last breath of Jesus in a revealing way. Kidd writes this: “We watched Jesus’s eyes grow glassy and distant. I felt the moment come, the severing. It was gentle, like a touch on the shoulder. ‘It is finished,’ Jesus said. There was a sound like a rush of wings in the blackish clouds, and I knew his spirit had left him. I imagined it like a great flock of birds, soaring, scattering, coming to rest everywhere.”14 After the burial, Kidd struggles to demonstrate Ana’s loss. She obtrudes upon what should have been a compelling emotional moment both a rushed feeling of action and, worse, a humorous anecdote about Ana’s goat. Kidd, though she announces that Ana is afflicted by sorrow, presents no compelling lamentation.

What Are You Longing For? Kidd’s flat and emotionally shallow view of death opened a window for me into why the Christian call to life seems so little compelling to so many people steeped in postmodern relativism. As a Christian, I am fascinated by the strange reality of the Resurrection, of God being able to turn over and destroy death itself by the work of the cross (1 Cor. 15:20–28). Jesus, though a man, is yet God,15 and His perfectly obedient death makes life possible not only for those who believe in Him, but for the continuation of the cosmos (Col. 1:15–23). This astonishing mystery invites the Christian believer into a transformative contemplation of the grief of death, of the severance of the soul from the body, of the rending asunder of people who love each other. I can face it because I know there is an answer, a hope, a true longing for a restoration of the voice to the body, of the individual to the community, because that very restoration has already been accomplished by Jesus Himself.

If postmodernism has wrought anything, it is to diminish and impoverish a person’s ability to face death and life. The dissipation of the heartbreak of death in turn brings about a disembodied, fractured view of the person, whether or not death ever enters the picture. Ana’s chief hope, her longing, is that she will be “a voice” that does not connect itself to the reality of her own aging and dying flesh:

I thought of the words inscribed in my incantation bowl: When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice. I closed my eyes and imagined the words rising from their ink beds and escaping over the side of the bowl. The figure I’d drawn of myself at the bottom leapt up and danced along the rim. Turning, Jesus laid his hand on my shoulder. “What is it, Ana? Why are you crying?” I reached up and felt the wetness on my lids. “John is a voice,” I managed to say. “What it must be to say such a thing of oneself! I’m trying to imagine it.”16 (emphasis in original)

But this voice, rather than calling anyone to a great and true longing, a transcendent and embodied hope that lasts forever, invites the reader to peer into the ground, the grave. Looking in we see that it is not empty. It is stuffed with a pile of dusty and dull scrolls. —Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People (Square Halo, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.

NOTES

  1. Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings (New York: Penguin Books, 2021), 29.
  2. Carl R. Trueman humanly deciphers this new kind of person in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
  3. Kidd, Longings, 39.
  4. Mary McMahon, “What Is a Mary Sue? (with Picture),” Infobloom, https://www.infobloom.com/what-is-a-mary-sue.htm.
  5. Atalanta, “Mary Sue,” Urban Dictionary, January 28, 2019, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Mary%20Sue.
  6. Kidd, Longings, 13.
  7. Kidd, Longings, 14.
  8. Kidd, Longings, 414.
  9. Kidd, Longings, 36.
  10. Kidd, Longings, 190.
  11. Kidd, Longings, 197–98.
  12. Kidd, Longings, 37.
  13. Jessica Brody unwittingly affirms this truth in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2018).
  14. Kidd, Longings, 379.
  15. Kidd makes the literary choice to limit Jesus to a human person only. He performs no healings in the book, not even to restore the tongue so cruelly and barbarously cut from the mouth of Tabitha.
  16. Kidd, Longings, 218.