I read March by Geraldine Brooks which was good, but not amazing. I enjoyed it, but don't remember much about it. So, when friends and family began raving about People of the Book I thought I would pick it up, but I didn't run right out and buy it. Mom sent me her copy and it has been sitting on my shelf all summer. I was in the mood for something non-mystery and this caught my eye. In the end, I'm glad that more than one person recommended it to me as I really enjoyed People of the Book. Yet, I find that it is a hard book to describe accurately.
The story takes place over a 500 year period working backwards chronologically in time from the 1990s until the 1480s. The story opens with a book conservationist who has been called to Sarajevo to verify the authenticity of a Haggadah (an illuminated Jewish text that tells the story of Passover) that was thought to have been destroyed during the Bosnian Civil War. As the conservationist attempts to unravel the mystery of this beautiful illuminated text the story jumps back in time to the world the book inhabited at different eras.
What I relished in this book was the encapsulated snapshot that Brooks gave of the life of average Jewish individuals through history. Most of the eras that she chose revolved around highly contentious moments when the Jewish people were at risk. One story takes place during World War II. Another takes place during the Jewish expulsion from Spain. But, because the book is not a static item that continues to have a life outside of the people who own it, Brooks does not feel the need to tell complete stories. Snippets end without a resolution to the lives of the individuals who interacted with the Haggadah. By the end of the book, the story of the Haggadah is resolved. As a reader you feel a sense of closure as the plots comes full circle and the text is authenticated and preserved.
There was a greater honesty to Brook's story because she did not wrap up each sub-plot into a neatly encased story. The threat to the Jewish people, the senseless death at the hands of religious zealots, the unease of the characters as they moved forward is mitigated because at length their journey is only important in so far as the preservation of the Haggadah is concerned. But as a reader I had a much greater sense of the long and often sad history of the Jewish people. Brooks compassionately showed the number of times that the Jews have been treated horrifically because of their religious beliefs. And, without giving away the ending, I had a huge appreciation for her choice of artist to have originally created the illuminations used in the Haggadah. To me, that choice speaks volumes about Brooks understanding of religious tension and strife and the senselessness of the death that has revolved around religion.
Another interesting side note is how readers have viewed People of the Book. To me it is first and foremost a book about religious intolerance. I have heard from a friend that it is primarily a book about the world of book conservation and the science involved. I have also heard second hand that it is at its base a love story. All of these things are true but I must say that the love story for me was merely a means to tell the story and not the plot. Nonetheless, I think it is a mark of a great book when different readers can take vastly different things with them when they finish. I would recommend this book to most anyone.