Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits — 320 pgs

In this multi-generational saga, the lives of a family of an extremely devout Jewish sect range from extreme joy to unmitigated tragedy as one transgression sets off an unstoppable chain of events. When two young children, Josef and Mila, are left orphaned by the horrendous events of the Holocaust, they travel a great distance to join the family of the religiously extreme Torah scholar Zalman Stern. Their new caretaker has a large brood of children, including a free thinking daughter named Atara. As time marches forward, Josef eventually leaves the Sterns to become a Torah scholar as well, while Atara and Mila become as close as sisters. When Zalman begins to look for prospective mates for both his ward and his daughter, the two young women are parted under very unusual circumstances. But it’s Mila’s destiny to be married to Josef, who hasn’t forgotten the young girl he left behind. Though the two are very much in love, Mila will shatter Josef’s heart and destroy the futures of her children and grandchildren with one misguided act—an act that she believes has been consecrated by God and the Torah. But redemption will come from an unlikely place, though it may not be enough to save what has been so tragically torn asunder. Will the silken cords of belief be unbound to prevent further heartbreak, or will they continue to tighten and strangle this loyal yet hopelessly estranged family?

Powerful, haunting and tragic, this novel elegantly weaves its narrative with precision and care, and creates a dark look into the lives of a family who’s religion seems to strangle them. The ferocity of the Judaism in this book was almost frightening, and each character living within this community seemed to lack the freedom to even think for themselves. All were bound to the writing of the Torah and its interpretation by a man with total control and questionable ethics. The Rebbe who ruled this particular sect was a man that dominated not only the Sterns but a whole community that looked to him for guidance. The only character who seemed to be suspicious of the Rebbe was Atara, who paid the ultimate price for going against the wishes of her pious father.

Many reviewers have mentioned the fact that the religious ritual was both fascinating and oddly striking, and I would have to agree with that assessment. I’ve read a fair amount about Hasidic Judaism, but the details that Markovits captures in her tale were not only new to me but sometimes shocking in their severity. There are fringe groups within every religious denomination, but never before has each rule and idiosyncrasy been documented with such clarity and care. I grew both angry and stricken while I read, knowing that one false step could result in complete isolation from the group, and that one's every action had to be thoroughly examined in order not to break the rules and guidelines that the Torah specifies.

Though the love story between Josef and Mila was romantic and beautiful, it was also full of pathos and pain. I won’t reveal the crux of the situation for fear of spoilers, but it was saddening to see the rose of their love bloom so beautifully, only to painfully wither away in an instant. What was maddening to me was that there was no redemption to be had. Though the two loved each other beyond compare, there was nothing they could do to erase the stain on their relationship. Though Mila acted in a completely rational and acceptable way, the rules set down by the Torah and the Rebbe forbade her forgiveness to an extreme degree. The impact that her act had was so far reaching and horrible that I felt my heart shrivel in my chest as I read the book’s final pages.

Forgiveness is a major theme in this book, and those seeking it never have the satisfaction of receiving it fully. There is a measure of redemption given to Atara, Mila and her offspring, and Josef, but there is never complete absolution for any of the characters. Suffering and pain is masked as religious adherence and filial duty, but there is no reprieve. In my opinion, Atara is the only character who ever really found a measure of peace, though even that is tainted by Mila’s unwise action.

This was a brilliant and beautiful book that sought to explain a way of life which is unfamiliar to most, populated by vivid characters who were placed under severe duress amidst stolen moments of joy. An incredible read that will leave an impression on even the most severe critic. Highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Anouk Markovits was raised in France, one of fifteen children of Hasidic Jewish parents. She was sent to a religious seminary in lieu of high school. After she left home at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage, she attended Columbia University’s School of General Studies and graduated with a Bachelor of Science. She has a Master of Architecture from Harvard and a PhD in Romance studies from Cornell. Her first novel, Pur Coton, written in French, was published by Gallimard. I Am Forbidden is her English-language debut.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Monday, May 7th:Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, May 8th:Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, May 9th:nomadreader
Thursday, May 10th:Life in Review
Friday, May 11th:Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, May 14th:Diary of an Eccentric
Tuesday, May 15th:The Literate Housewife Review
Wednesday, May 16th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Thursday, May 17th:A Bookish Affair
Monday, May 21st:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, May 23rd:The 3 R’s Blog
Thursday, May 24th:Stiletto Storytime
Tuesday, May 29th:Luxury Reading
Monday, June 4th:Suko’s Notebook
Date TBD:Melody & Words
Date TBD:She is Too Fond of Books - guest post

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Brooke said...

Great review, Heather. Books about really intense religious sects fascinate me to no end. I think it's because I come from the exact opposite in that my household was relatively free of organized religion. And I'm always looking for a well-crafted love story. This one is heading to the top of my must purchase soon list!

geosi said...

Brilliant review. I love books that paints characters vividly so will definetely want to get to this one day.

bermudaonion said...

I've read next to nothing about Hasidic Judaism so this book sounds fascinating to me. It sounds fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Everyone is raving about this book! I definitely need to get my hands on it. I love your review because you shared a lot of what you loved about the book and what broke your heart about it without going into any spoilerish detail. You made me want to read it even MORE!

Athira said...

I have been seeing this book around, but I didn't realize it was part of a tour. Glad that you think this book is fabulous! I will have to look for it.

Harvee said...

Amazing book on the effects of strict adherence to religion, it seems. I'm impressed that the author has given readers an insider's look.

Jennifer | Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I've read a few reviews of this one, and I really want to buy this one. It sounds like a great read, and one that I would really enjoy. Great review!

Ti said...

You did a marvelous job with the summary. I'm not sure I could have summed it up as well as you did here.

I don't typically like books that are heavy on religion so I haven't picked this one up. I hope to be a more well-rounded reader someday and to stretch myself a bit more to include books about religion, but so far it hasn't happened. That is why I take lit classes every now and then because then I have no choice!

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

Incredible review!! I must have this one!

Suko said...

I'm so glad you found this book to be brilliant,as I'll also be reading it soon. It sounds intense and powerful. Thanks for another stellar review.

Literary Feline said...

I love books like this! And this one sound so so good. I am not sure I am ready for it just yet (still kind of in my lighter is better phase as anything too heavy or too thought provoking stops my brain), but it is definitely one to add to the wish list when I'm ready.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

So many people are loving this book, but I'm afraid I would get angry like you! And I hate (in a sense) books like that because where does one go with one's anger?!!!

Unknown said...

I LOVED this book. I didn't read all your review because I haven't written mine yet. Such a wonderful story

Aarti said...

Wow, I've been so impressed with the reviews I have read of this book. It sounds so nuanced and interesting to me. I have it on my shelf, actually- Hogarth Press sent me a lovely box of their first four publications- I think I won a prize, which is awesome. I think I may read the one by the Indian author first and then this one when some of the hype dies down :-)

Unknown said...

This book sounds fascinating and heart-wrenching. I don't know alot about Hasidic Judaism but I know they're very strict about how things are done and there's very little wiggle room particularly for women. I understand your anger and know I would feel it too. I had some Hasidic women clients when I was in the DA's office and I was either angry or Incredibly sad (ssually both) at their predicaments.
I know the 'crux of the situation' to which you refer because it was revealed in some review. Knowing what happens made me all the more curious and interested in reading this book.

A beautiful and fantastic review, Heather :o)

Jenny said...

Goodness, this sounds like something that would probably make me angry as well. But then, the best books are the ones that elicit the most emotions, I think!

nomadreader said...

So glad you loved this one as much as I did!

Jenna said...

What a great review! I hadn't really given this book a second glance until now. This sounds like such a powerful story. I love how you noted that the story will "leave an impression on even the most severe critic." Such high praises, indeed!

Anna said...

"The impact that her act had was so far reaching and horrible that I felt my heart shrivel in my chest as I read the book’s final pages."

I felt the same way! I enjoyed this book because I knew nothing about Hasidic Judaism, but it was such a heartbreaking story. Great review!

Andi said...

I've had my eye on this one, and your review just makes me want to dive into it all the more.

Jenners said...

I've heard such praise for this book, and I appreciate you giving me more insight into its particulars.

Ryan said...

This comment has nothing to do with this post. I just wanted to stop by and thank you for the recommendation of The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen. I read about it here, picked it up and enjoyed it. Thanks!

Now back to the regularly scheduled program.

Man of la Book said...

Great review, I don't know how I missed this one on the TLC tour. I always wanted to read it.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

I want to read this book so badly! and your review simply compounds that fact. I have always been fascinated by the Jewish culture and it wasn't until I was reading a series by Faye Kellerman that I realized there are different sects to the Jewish culture! This book is one I am going out to buy and enjoy thoroughly.

as an aside, we have some friends who are Jewish and they included my bf and I in their weekend family ritual - I can't recall the official name of the Friday night dinner but it was so incredible to be a part of it.

Lisa said...

"Brilliant" and "beautiful" are words that I can't resist in a review! This sounds like a great choice for a book club as well.

Audra said...

Everything you wrote is so true -- especially this: "The impact that her act had was so far reaching and horrible that I felt my heart shrivel in my chest as I read the book’s final pages." YES -- omg, yes.

Darlene said...

I thought this was a really powerful book as well. I know I couldn't live a life where forgiveness was impossible. Nor could I live with so many restrictions. I think that's why I find these types of books so fascinating is because there are so many that live this way. Excellent novel and review!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I love your comment about "stolen moments of joy" - that has me really intrigued!

Thanks for being on the tour.

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