This is a book I should love, but I’m afraid I didn’t.
In my ceaseless quest for excellent Biblical fiction, I stumbled across Etzioni-Halevy’s earlier book, The Song of Hannah, last year and read it. I didn’t think it was as good as it could have been, but I was willing to try another book by her when I saw she had written about Ruth. Actually, this novel tells two stories: the first is the well-known love story of Ruth and Boaz with a few twists that didn’t make it into the Biblical narrative; the larger frame story is that of Osnath, a young girl who visits the home of Ruth’s descendants three generations later, falls in love with the handsome but bossy Eliab, and determines to dig out the truth of Ruth’s story even though Eliab is determined to keep it from her.
There’s a lot here that should work well. Etzioni-Halevy, an Israeli university professor, knows her stuff and knows the era she’s writing about, and includes lots of convincing detail about the time and place. There’s a definite feminist revisionist spin both in this story and in the earlier novel about Hannah, since Etzioni-Halevy believes (as do many scholars) that there were literate women in the era of the Biblical judges, and that these women may have contributed to writing the Scriptures. Both Ruth and Osnath are writers, and the fascination with women’s writing is central to this novel.
And yet … despite those promising elements, I found the novel slow and hard to get through. Most of it is due to the author’s writing style. I’m not sure if English is her first language or not, but the writing, both in narrative and dialogue, is so stilted and formal that the end result is to distance the reader rather than draw her in. The characters never sound like real people; they sound like actors reading a particularly wooden script aloud.
Nor do they act like real people, in my opinion. One of the problems of historical fiction is getting inside the heads of people from another historical era and figuring out what attitudes and emotions are tied to culture, and which are universal and shared by people in every time and place. The characters in a good historical novel should feel slightly alien, as they are living according to the mores of a very different culture, and yet also recognizably human. We should understand that their motivations may be different from ours, but we should also be able to see how those motivations drive their actions.
This is an area where I feel Etzioni-Halevy’s novels fall short. There’s plenty of steamy sexual encounters, both in this novel and the Hannah novel, to a degree which makes ancient Israel feel a bit like Sex and the Judges — I wasn’t convinced that this degree of sexual freedom was historically accurate. But the characters think and behave in ways that don’t seem realistic for people in any time and place — Osnath’s on-and-off love affair with Eliab, for example, is driven by apparently unmotivated actions on both their parts. It’s impossible to understand what the characters want or how they intend to go about getting it. There’s a happy ending, of course, but it seems irrelevant to everything that’s gone on in the preceding pages.
In summary: The Garden of Ruth, like The Song of Hannah before it, has loads of potential — but doesn’t always live up to that potential. I’m sorry, because this should have been a great read.