My Covid-19 Summer: Reading Historical Novels

The Summer of Covid-19

It is not exactly that I am depressed. It is more that the world is in crisis.  The long game:  we wash our hands, wear masks in public, and stay home as much as possible.  Dr. Anthony Fauci says that a vaccine is unlikely to be more than 75% effective, and may not develop herd immunity in the U.S. because of anti-authoritarianism and the anti-vaccine movement.  And that’s where I’m living: in a country in denial.

I  am not depressed, but allowed myself a Doris Lessing-style mini-breakdown (see The Summer Before the Dark and The Four-Gated City), which took the form of not washing my hair, wearing pajamas, meditating, and treating myself to historical novels. There are so many good historical novels out there–and I’ve been missing out!


In progress:   Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Book of Longings.

Sue Monk Kidd is a well-respected writer, best known for her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. I got hooked on her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, the story of a mother-daughter relationship and the middle-aged daughter’s coming to terms with the past.

Kidd’s style is simple and spare, characterized by short sentences. Her intelligence and skilled storytelling make her novels a delight.   I don’t want to do anything at the moment but read her new novel, The Book of Longings, set in the first century A.D., during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.

I have a weakness for novels set in ancient times, and I am thoroughly enjoying this one.  The fiery heroine, Ana, a young Jewish woman in Sephoris in Galilee, lives in unusual times.  And, though rich, she marries a poor man.  There it is, right on the jacket copy: Ana marries  Jesus. Yes, that Jesus!  If I had written the jacket copy, I would consider that a spoiler.  She doesn’t actually marry him until page 144.

Instead, we meet her as a rebellious, studious girl, the daughter of one of the top advisers of Herod Antipas (King Herod in the Bible). And her brother is Judas, a Zionist and an agitator.

The narrator, Ana, is a writer and a scholar.  Her father, an advisor of Herod Antipas (a ruler of Galilee and Perea), teases her that she should have been a boy when she asks him to hire a tutor to teach her languages. And so she becomes a scholar:  she is writing her own account of women in the Bible. Her mother disapproves, but Yaltha, her radical aunt, gives her the support she needs.

Monk deals with many women’s issues in ancient Galilee: women are threatened with rape, mutilated for speaking out (one poor girl has her tongue cut out),  and betrothed to men they don’t want to marry. Ana runs away when her father wants her to become Herod’s concubine; she filches the ivory tablets they tried to bribe her with, telling them it is her gift.  At the market, when Herod’s servant catches her with the ivory, Jesus saves her not only from being stoned , but says he and Ana are about to be betrothed. It’s an odd concept, the marriage of Jesus, one you’ve probably heard of and wondered about. Kidd’s research is meticulous, and though she is writing fiction, the characters are brilliantly-depicted and the details of life in the ancient world are mostly accurate.  Ana is more than a wife:  she is a writer and uses birth control because she is not interested in motherhood.

Entertaining and meticulously researched. It gets better as it goes along.  An enjoyable read, if not great literature.

I also enjoyed Crystal King’s entertaining novel, Feast of Sorrows, set in ancient Rome. I wrote in my book journal:  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and feuds. The pages fly.

Now I want to read her second novel, The Chef’s Secret, which sounds similar, except for the setting. The book jacket says: ” A captivating novel of Renaissance Italy detailing the mysterious life of Bartolomeo Scappi, the legendary chef to several popes and author of one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, and the nephew who sets out to discover his late uncle’s secrets—including the identity of the noblewoman Bartolomeo loved until he died.”

And what historical novels have you been reading? I’m washing my hair again, but I’m still reading historical novels!

6 thoughts on “My Covid-19 Summer: Reading Historical Novels”

  1. I thought I didn’t read historical novels until somebody pointed me in the direction of the Walter Scott prize which is just for historical fiction and I discovered that one year I’d read the entire six on the shortlist. I’d just seen them as good literary fiction and not clocked that they were also historical fiction. If you want some good suggestions you could do worse than check out their website.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! There is a lot of “literary” historical fiction, and this might be the place for me.

  2. Ellen writes:

    either watch or quickly skim, Goodman interviewing Ed Yong (another expert like Laurie Garrett):
    What you will learn is this: The only procedure which will work is to contain and suppress (that’s what the head of WHO said long ago); billions have to be spent by the federal govt to test trace and quarantine every two weeks or something like that — and for maybe several months, and only then can the US come near to controlling and suppressing. The US if 175th out of 195 in access to medicine; there is fine medicine but huge numbers of people will not go because of the bills they cannot begin to pay incurred (this is happening–fantastical bills).
    He does not say but I do that heartless capitalism and racism have created a population where the health of huge numbers of people are compromised.

  3. I found a much-loved old hardcover of Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave in a LFL last week. It’s not a genre into which I’m dying to delve just now, but I remember it being a favourite of some of the women in my family when it was newer and freshly in paperback, and I brought it home “just in case the mood struck”. Not exactly in the field you’re reading these days, but not far either.

  4. I enjoyed reading Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses trilogy fairly recently. I also loved Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books years ago.

    1. I’m not familiar with Conn Iggulden, but it sounds good to me. Mary Stewart is an old favorite. The Arthur books are great, probably her best, but online people seem to talk more about her Gothics (which I also love).

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