Book Review :: People of the Book

I love presents. I especially love them when they are beautifully wrapped. To me, the way a gift is presented is as much an indication of its giver’s intent as what is inside. Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book is like a beautifully wrapped gift.

Hanna Heath, a rare-book expert, is commissioned to investigate the history and origins of a Jewish Haggadah – a prayer book used during Passover to tell the story of the Hebrew’s journey out of slavery in Egypt. This particular manuscript is unusual in that it also contains artistic portrayals of the story and the tradition. Dr. Heath recovers a number of artifacts in her examination – a portion of an insect wing, salt remnants, a wine stain and a white hair.

The narrative of the story is then built on alternating episodes of the present day and parts of the book’s history that account for the artifact it retained. By doing so, Brooks tells a number of small tales, each poignant and distinct with memorable characters and events that parallel the plight and survival of the Jewish race, from the inquisition to Nazi Germany. The looks in time are given backward so that the final historical narrative is that of the young artist from the 15th century who painted the illustrations.

My one exception to the novel is that the slight plot turn at the end of the book was unnecessary. I understand that many of my peers need plot device in order to feel fulfilled in a reading. This is not the case for me. So, while the twist (and I use that term loosely) is fine – it doesn’t detract –  for me it just wasn’t needed.

The assembly of Brooks’ novel creates a primary character, that while inanimate is very much alive, that eloquently shares with the reader its vivid and varied saga – a lovely adornment to the story inside.

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9 Replies to “Book Review :: People of the Book

  1. I've read such good reviews on the book over the past few years, yet I still have not read it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Diane – The reviews I read were somewhat mixed, and so I've actually been somewhat reluctant to pick it up. However, I loved Year of Wonders – still one of my all time favorites – so I did, and obviously was not disappointed.

  3. Happy to read your review of this, Elisabeth. We read it for our work book club, and everyone that came to that (small) meeting was confused and/or annoyed by the plot twist you mentioned. We all thought it unnecessary and contrived for a book that had so much merit. I had to wonder if maybe an editor or agent suggested it to appeal to a broader audience. Sadly literary fiction is not as popular as thrillers. Though certainly thrillers have their merit.

    I was so interested in the descriptions of how Hannah did her job and how she investigated rare books. Just after having finished this book, I went to a local university's rare book room, and much that I learned in PotB came to bear on that visit. Funny how things like that can happen.

    I have not read any other of Brooks' fiction. I have always been interested in March, but perhaps Year of Wonders is what I should explore first.

    Enjoyed the review – thanks!

  4. Welcome, Marce & thanks for stopping by!

    Ana & Iris – I look forward to your reviews & insights!

    Stacie – Now that I've read it, I hate I missed this discussion. I can't wait for my mom to finish so I have someone to talk to about it!

  5. Elisabeth,

    So glad you selected this book for the ThemeQuest reading challenge! Hope you enjoyed participating in the challenge this year.
    Wishing you a great 2011 —

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