The Book of V. 

  • Review
By – April 23, 2020

The sto­ry of Esther is often told as the tri­umph of a Jew­ish minor­i­ty over one man’s blind­ing hatred, through the courage and self­less­ness of one woman. Anna Solomon’s The Book of V. chal­lenges this sim­ple nar­ra­tive — ask­ing, what is Vashti’s sto­ry? And how do we choose to rep­re­sent women’s lives, both in the past and today?

The nar­ra­tive alter­nates between the his­tor­i­cal Esther’s per­spec­tive, Vivian, known as Vee, a 1970s wife of a sen­a­tor, and Lily, a mod­ern-day Brook­lynite, sec­ond wife, and moth­er of two. Each of these women’s lives is con­strained by the expec­ta­tions of a patri­ar­chal soci­ety. Vee enjoys her socialite life but is plagued by her husband’s past and her own inse­cu­ri­ties when she com­pares her­self to her peers; Lily is haunt­ed by the mem­o­ry of her husband’s first wife, and can­not relin­quish feel­ings of inep­ti­tude towards her domes­tic duties and her marriage.

Sto­ry­telling becomes a pow­er­ful tool — in choos­ing hero and vil­lain, and in deter­min­ing how the sto­ry arrives at its famous end­ing. The nov­el begins with Lily read­ing the sto­ry of Queen Esther to her two young daugh­ters while inter­nal­ly strug­gling with its incon­gruities. We are intro­duced to Vee as she pre­pares a ban­quet for D.C.’s elite, while deal­ing with her husband’s insis­tence and apa­thy towards her wish­es. We then see the world of the real-life Esther, which con­trasts sharply with the ide­al­ized ver­sion often pre­sent­ed: there are con­stant raids on the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, strug­gles to make ends meet, all while Esther desires to be hum­ble and yet live up to her proud her­itage. Ulti­mate­ly, Esther’s uncle decides to enter her into the pageant — both a far-fetched scheme for her to tell the king of her uncle’s figs, and a more ground­ed plan to remove his beau­ti­ful, young niece from his temptation.

The Book of V. explores the idea of peo­ple liv­ing on the mar­gins — geo­graph­i­cal­ly, social­ly, and eco­nom­i­cal­ly. In Esther’s era, Jews are forced to live out­side the city walls in the pun­ish­ing desert heat, and strug­gle with com­mu­ni­ty ten­sions brought on by eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty. In the 1970s, Vee looks for belong­ing and pur­pose, first by sup­port­ing her husband’s polit­i­cal career and then when she stays with her close friend Rose­mary and her fam­i­ly. At the whim of struc­tures cre­at­ed by men that leave her with­out mean­ing­ful agency, she is giv­en worth sole­ly based on her beau­ty — the only cur­ren­cy she has left. Lily, too, looks for lib­er­a­tion in domes­tic­i­ty, striv­ing to under­stand how she can have cho­sen to be a stay-at-home mom, even as her own moth­er sees her as a failed aca­d­e­m­ic. She tries to find solace in sewing her young daughter’s Purim cos­tumes, but instead feels out of place among the seem­ing­ly per­fect, PTA moth­ers she meets at a sewing group.

Mag­ic, pride, and the moth­er-daugh­ter rela­tion­ship are all allu­sive, tem­pes­tu­ous crea­tures — not to be tak­en light­ly; each costs some­thing. Solomon’s book is deeply intro­spec­tive, long pas­sages deft­ly chron­i­cle each pro­tag­o­nist’s inner thoughts. Each line of dia­logue also feels weighty, and yet leaves a lin­ger­ing sense that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is always just adja­cent from the truth. The Book of V. offers new inter­pre­ta­tions of the sto­ry of Esther, and crit­i­cizes the way in which it has been told for thou­sands of years.

Simona is the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s man­ag­ing edi­tor of dig­i­tal con­tent and mar­ket­ing. She grad­u­at­ed from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege with a con­cen­tra­tion in Eng­lish and His­to­ry and stud­ied abroad in India and Eng­land. Pri­or to the JBC she worked at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Her writ­ing has been fea­tured in LilithThe Nor­mal School, Dig­ging through the Fat, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She holds an MFA in fic­tion from The New School. 

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