Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Chosen: The Lost Diaries of Queen Esther by Ginger Garrett - 304 pgs

Book CoverEsther is a poor young woman of limited means living with her cousin Mordechai after being orphaned many years ago. Living quietly as a Jew in Susa during King Xerxes reign, Esther's existence is a simple one, brightened only by the fact that she is in love with a local merchant's son named Cyrus. Though Cyrus and Esther have little hope of being married, both are committed to each other and long for the day that they will be able to break away and begin their lives together. This dream is unexpectedly crushed when Xerxes decides to banish his queen, Vashti, after a humiliating encounter in front of his subjects, and take a new queen. Xerxes' men are sent into the city to gather up all the available virgins, and against her cousin's protest, Esther is taken to the palace to undergo a year of beauty treatments so that she will be pristine and groomed for her night with the king. Upon entering the palace, Esther catches the eye of Hagai, the chief eunuch, and is quickly whisked away to a life of lavishness and privilege. Hagai harbors hope that Esther will capture the heart of the king and become the new queen to rule by his side. But as Esther and Hagai's dreams come true, Esther becomes embroiled in a plight that will take all her wits and fortitude to escape. And the danger she is facing will not only affect her but all the Jews of Susa under the reign of the king. Rich yet amazingly subtle, Chosen tells the biblical story of Esther, the mighty and courageous woman whose hand alone changed the future of the Jews.

I think I am becoming a connoisseur of literature about Queen Esther. I took a twelve week Bible study class that deconstructed this short yet powerful book of the Bible, and shortly after I read and reviewed The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn. When the opportunity came to review yet another book about Esther, I jumped at the chance to read a third version of the story. While I did definitely enjoy this book more than The Gilded Chamber, there were some spots that left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

First off, I really liked this version of Esther. She was vulnerable and soft, yet when the situation demanded, she became very resourceful and cunning in the extreme. I thought this Esther was very motivated by her circumstances and I could clearly see how she grew into the queen who changed a nation. During the early sections of the book, Esther begins to ask questions about her life that I feel many young women have asked themselves. Mainly she wonders if her dreams and desires are less important because she is a woman in a society dominated by men. She wonders if her life would be different if she had had the ability to make her decisions as she saw fit instead of being forced into uncomfortable roles by the people that claimed to have her best interest at heart. Esther was searching for herself in a world that was not of her making, and despite the lavish attentions and riches surrounding her, she found that she could never be satisfied with the material things that cluttered her life while the deepest desires of her heart were being ignored and swept under the rug. Eventually Esther is forced to do what many women are forced to do: be satisfied with what she has and learn to stop lamenting the things that she cannot change. She must sweep her dreams away and exist as others around her have shaped her to be and find her destiny in other directions.

One of the things that I wish had gotten a little more attention was the life Esther led in the harem of the king. There were little to no interactions between her and the other women and the only characters aside from the major players who got any page time were Hagai and the various servants that attended Esther. I would have liked to have seen more of the other girls in the harem and gotten a little more back story about them. Several times the story alluded to the fact that there were vicious rivalries and jealousies in the harem but they were never really elaborated on. It was too much of a case of telling not showing and I was a bit disappointed by that. It would have been nice to see these things get more page time and see the way that Esther dealt with her changed circumstances among the women who surrounded her.

While I did like the subplot involving Esther and Cyrus, I felt that there was an awful lot of time given over to the lamenting of their lost love. As it became clear very early in the book that these two lovers would not get the chance to be together, I felt that it might have been better to leave these sections alone. I would have rather seen more focus on Esther in her new surroundings, rather than having her constantly pine for something she could never have. I do have to conclude that these sections were more realistic though, as I can truly believe that dreams do not abandon the dreamer if left unfulfilled. I guess my main problem with these sections was that they seemed very unproductive, and the fact that Esther had such a journey to accomplish but had been lost in her dreams for so long niggled at me a little bit. Towards the end of the book, the subplot involving Cyrus became more pleasing and began to fit the story a bit better, which leavened my discontent a bit.

The sections of the book that were based on the plight of the Jews were very well done. These were the sections that were most biblically accurate, and I felt that the author did a wonderful job of melding the fictional elements of her story to fit the biblical sections. Here Esther does the unthinkable for her people, and here her courage takes center stage. She uses the only things she has available to her, namely her wits and her beauty, to ensnare the king's attentions and bend him to her will. Much of the danger in what she was doing was clearly reiterated for the reader, and as this contest of wills came into the full spotlight, it was evident that Esther was working in conjunction with the hand of God to save her people, to remarkable effect. Clearly she was no ordinary woman, a fact that the author both spotlights and downplays to wonderful effect. In this, the last section of the book, it becomes clear how much she has grown and matured and just how strong her faith has become.

If you have to pick only one book to read about the life of Esther, I would definitely say that this is the one to go with. Though there were some small points that I didn't care for, this version of the story was by far the most involving and thought provoking. Garrett's Esther was so remarkably human as to seem very familiar and endearing at once, and from the standpoint of biblical correctness, this book was most closely on the mark. For those that are curious about Esther, I would definitely encourage you to give this book a try, and also think this book would be a great read for lovers of biblical fiction. A really interesting read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Amy said...

I read a review of this before that had kind of turned me off of it, but after reading your review I've changed my mind. It sounds like parts of the story can be annoying but overall it is good, so I'll be looking for it.

Suko said...

I must admit that I haven't read much Biblical fiction. This book about the life of Esther sounds very intriguing.

Excellent review, as usual!

bermudaonion said...

Wow, that's high praise indeed! The book sounds fascinating.

Jenny said...

Gladys Malvern's Behold Your Queen completely spoiled me for any other retellings of the Esther story - it was my favorite book when I was about eight. It may not actually be that good, but it was MAGIC when I was eight; plus, because it was about the Bible, I was allowed to read it in church. ;)

Aarti said...

It's interesting how Biblical fiction around the women of the Bible has turned somewhat into feminist fiction, with the women questioning their roles and their actions.

Honestly, it's unlikely I'll pick this book up because religious fiction does make me uncomfortable (though I did read and enjoy The Red Tent), but I'm glad that you have gotten to explore a story you enjoy in three different ways!

Trapunto said...

Talk about being forced into uncomfortable roles. I think Esther is one of the best stories in the Bible, so as soon as I started your review I was thinking, "It's about time someone novelized this!" But then I realized tons of unremembered authors already must have done that in the past. I will take your word that this one is better than Kohn. It sounds really interesting.

Vasilly said...

This sounds like a book that might fit me. Will add it to the TBR list.

Lisa said...

Sounds like you found a good one but that you're still searching for a really terrific book about Esther. Other than The Red Tent, I don't think I've read any fiction based on stories from the Bible. I'll have to check this one out.

Ana S. said...

Telling instead of showing is rarely a good idea - but that flaw aside, this sounds like an excellent book. I wasn't raised Christian so I only know the original story in passing, but this sounds like something I might enjoy regardless.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

My husband's granddaughter played Esther in a play at their synagogue in NYC....LOL

I don't think this is a book that I would enjoy, but I did enjoy reading your review; thanks Heather.

Marie Cloutier said...

I HAVE to find this! Esther is a great Biblical figure and a heroic one at that. thanks for hte great review!

Literary Feline said...

I am not too familiar with Esther, but you have me curious. Like so many who have commented, I have read The Red Tent and liked that quite a bit. It took years to get me to read it though as I tend to shy away from fiction based on Biblical stories. I haven't a good reason for it, really though.

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