Monday, July 09, 2007

Book Review: The Ladies Auxiliary

Some of my favorite bloggin’ buddettes are from the South, and I kept thinking about them as I read Tovah Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, a novel about what happens when a small Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis, TN, is turned on its ear by a newly- arrived eccentric blonde convert given to wearing gauzy garb and expressing herself through abstract painting.

Batsheva (Daughter of Sevens = Daughter of the Sabbath) is the young widow of a product of the Memphis community. After her husband dies, Batsheva, left with a small daughter, Ayala, moves back to the place where her beloved was reared in his faith, in hopes of finding the elusive home and true community of heart and faith that she’s always wanted.

The women of the auxiliary struggle with whether to accept Batsheva as she is or encourage her to completely assimilate into their community, where there is little room for any divergence—of religious observation, of dress, of female role identity, etc. They are both drawn to and repelled by this newcomer, and trust becomes a pivotal issue in the story.

The Ladies Auxiliary sheds light on what it’s like to be a Jewish wife and mother during the holidays, what it’s like to strive with a fervor to instill religious faithfulness in teenaged daughters, what it's like to have your place in the pecking order firmly established, what it’s like to fear change in an institution that your family has built and protected for generations …

And it addresses all of these conflicts through solid, complex characters whose insecurities, desires, fears and prejudices are revealed by a “second-person” narrator, “We.” So it is as if one of the auxiliary members is re-telling the story of what happened to “us” when Batsheva came to town. It would be interesting to note whether the reader identifies more with Batsheva or the Auxiliary.

I liked this novel very much, and my 20 year-old daughter is the one who recommended it to me, so I think that speaks to its relevancy.

Also, as a near-lifelong Christian who is employed by my church and firmly established in the routines and practices of my own faith, I was challenged by this novel to scrutinize myself and recall my reactions to people new to the faith who have not fit traditional, cookie-cuter molds that some in our community expect a believer to look like or behave like. I believe the novel changed me in that when I meet someone new in my faith, I will remember Batsheva's story as a reminder to always encourage and never tear down. This novel truly is food for thought.

If you are interested in learning more about Jewish culture, if you consider yourself a caring mother, if you strive to live out your faith to the best of your imperfect ability, if you have ever judged someone or been judged by someone regarding your intentions and motivations, you’ll enjoy this book.

I fully intend to read the author’s next work, “The Outside World.” The reason I show two covers above is that the one I read shows the Batsheva character, while the other, I suspect newer, cover shows flowers.

Please see Ms. Mirvis’ official website.


Susanne said...

This is a great review, Linda. I'm glad you put it up. From the way you describe it, it sounds like just the kind of book I would really like, yet I probably would not have picked it up from just looking at either cover.

Kether said...

I read this book years ago and the cover was the one with the flowers. I have to say it is probably one of my all-time favorite novels. It made me re-examine the religious rituals in my life, and crave more. Like you, it also made me think carefully about how I treat people.
I think this is one of those books that hangs out in the little recessess of your mind.

Gretchen said...

I really enjoyed this book too. Found it very refreshing and easy to identify with (all the characters, really). Thanks for the review.

Hoping little Zoe's nether regions are better quite soon. (((hugs)))