by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Thanks to partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Anna Solomon’s The Book of V in exchange for an honest review. Anna Solomon’s The Book of V, out May 5th, is an astonishing and beautiful novel. Through three parallel stories, Solomon explores the ways that women can fight to define their identities, even in situations when they seem to be powerless. At the heart of the book is the biblical story of Esther, the second wife of the king. Solomon uses this story as the core of her book, telling it on page 1 and retelling it with different details and at different depths, until we come to consider both the truth of the story and the nature of storytelling in general. In the story of Esther, the king’s first wife, Vashti, descended from royalty (and, therefore, outranking her husband) disappeared under strange circumstances–the king had tested her by asking her to strip naked in front of a crowd of advisors. When she refused . . . well, no one knows because no one has seen her since her refusal. Esther, one of a nomadic group of Jews who have settled for decades along the palace wall, enters a contest for the king’s attention. She’s cast out from her family because her beauty gives her such power over men, and with that power ironically comes a loss of control. She and hundreds of other girls put themselves up as candidates for marriage. After the ranks of the competitors diminish, the final contestants parade in front of the king. Esther alone forgoes the extravagances of makeup and adornment and thereby catches the king’s attention, the exact opposite of her intention. The narrative then follows Esther into an unwilling marriage and the political machinations of the king’s advisors. Throughout the book, Solomon uses this story to ground the narrative, but also to challenge the original tale. The second storyline, set in 1974 in Washington, DC, centers on Vivian “Vee” Barr. Vee, born into a political dynasty, weds an unknown and then, through her fortune and familial power, aids him in becoming Senator Kent. Now, Kent is up for re-election and decides to hold a party at their home so that he can win over a reluctant supporter. Kent decides (seemingly on a whim) to have separate parties for the genders. This story, set during the height of the feminist movement, makes clear that Vee here is a parallel for Vashti, that she is the “royalty” who must be diminished by her husband to prove his worth. Vee is yearning for power over herself and her identity, and her reluctance to have children–a decision made possible by the availability of the birth control pill–is here symbolic of her desire to control her own fate. The third protagonist is Lily, a second wife with two small daughters who is trying to define herself as a woman within the freedom she’s apparently afforded in 2016 Brooklyn. A former academic, Lily has decided to leave her studies and her former career to be a stay-at-home mom despite the disapproval of her mother. She sees herself in constant contrast to her husband Adam’s first wife, Vira, assuming that against such a foil she’ll see herself as happy. As Solomon weaves these stories together, we see the ways that women have–and have not–made progress in centuries. Each woman seizes a different type of power, a different type of control over herself, and yet each is in some way limited because of her gender. There’s a joy, as well, in the awareness of each character about the stories of the others–certainly, Vee and Lily both know the stories of Esther and Vashti, and that awareness highlights different facets of their own identities. Solomon plays with style throughout the book, juxtaposing a storytelling reminiscent of the King James version of the Bible with the more modern stories of women in the 1970s and the 2010s. I was transfixed with the intricacy of the book’s structure, with the ways that each alternating chapter comments upon the events of the last and each woman’s story illuminates the others’ paths.
The Book of V is a novel that rewards a close and careful reading, and I’m sure it would yield more gifts upon a second read. I’ll definitely be delving in to Anna Solomon’s rich, complex text again.
The Book of V is a part of BookSparks Summer Reading Camp! Check out their other great selections for summer here.
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