Sunday, March 13, 2011

"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks

Summary: When a famed illustrated Jewish prayer book, a haggadah, is rescued in Bosnia, Australian book conservator Hanna Heath is brought in to preserve the work before it goes on display.  As Hanna investigates the history of the book, People of the Book alternates chapters showing glimpses of the book's history, from Seville in 1480 to Sarajevo in 1940.

Musings: People of the Book was a somewhat disappointing read, though I enjoyed it more by the end than I did in the beginning.  Brooks' March was one of my top ten favorite books in 2009, so I had high hopes.  On the other hand, I'm reading this for a newly-formed book group, and I've had a very bad track record with book club books (i.e. I always hate them), so perhaps People of the Book was doomed from the beginning.

The weakest sections of the book for me were the chapters on Hanna.  She's the Robert Langdon (of The DaVinci Code) of book conservation, and, like Robert Langdon, her travels in pursuit of her trade are laughably exotic as she jet-sets all over the world in pursuit of CSI-style information on the haggadah.  Unsurprisingly, all the experts she meets in her travels are young and attractive.  I found Frau Zweig, the chief archivist of a German museum, the most unlikely and obnoxious; take this description: "In her late twenties, [Zweig] was dressed in high black boots, a teensy plaid skirt, and a tight, electric blue jersey that emphasized an enviable figure.  Her dark hair was cropped in a jagged bob and streaked in various shades of red and yellow.  There was a silver stud in the side of her retrousse nose" (101).  She's really a minor character, but even important characters, like Muslim librarian and love interest Ozren, aren't much better.

I felt no connection to Hannah as a reader and no understanding of her personality.  In particular, Hanna's absurdly dysfunctional relationship with her mother was irrelevant and over-wrought.    I was happy when her chapters ended and the chapters following the book's history began.

These historical chapters were a little more interesting, particularly since the protagonist of each is vastly different from the protagonist of the others.  The characters range in age, sex, religion, and nationality, and it was interesting to see the ways in which so many different people became involved in the life and protection of one book.  However, again, I felt a lack of connection with the characters.  In borrowing Dan Brown's Langdon, Brooks also seems to have borrowed Brown's lack of style.  There's a lot that happens, but little in the way of subtlety or character development.  It's like someone had read the book to me and then asked me to summarize it in detail; the plot points would be there, but it wouldn't be interesting.

There's strong emphasis in the book on the ways in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim individuals worked together.  It's a worthwhile message, but the relationships on which the message is built often felt forced and fake, making the message itself feel heavy handed. It's fascinating to see the way in which, throughout history, these religions have co-existed peacefully and then persecuted others or been persecuted, but there was no nuance in the way these complicated relationships occurred.

In the end, People of the Books is a literary idea done with dull commercialized fiction writing.  If you're interested in reading one of Brooks' works, I would definitely recommend March over this one.

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