Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Red Tent

I've heard a lot of women praise The Red Tent, and I have to admit that the cover picture had me wondering why the woman was posing in this manner. After reading the book, one can only speculate. Historical fiction fans would enjoy this book, but the plot didn't really grab me on this one. I know it's a book club favorite, but I wouldn't want to read this for a book club.

What I did appreciate in the book, however, was the personal narrative piece. I like how women are portrayed as the story tellers, the keepers of memory who pass on the memories of their families, and especially their mothers. Such this the case with our protagonist Dinah (pronounced Dee-na) who opens the novel with a retelling of her mothers' lives--Leah (pronounced Lay-uh), Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. All four sisters are married to her father Jacob in the order of their birth.

Through Dinah's storytelling, she recounts her family history. She explains the strained history between Leah and Rachel--their rivalry. Leah is wed first, which angers Rachel, yet Rachel has more beauty and draws a stronger reaction from Jacob. However, Leah is very fortunate in child birth. She gives Jacob many, many sons while it takes Rachel over ten years to conceive one son. Ziplah and Bilhah also conceive, but they are considered more as lesser servants than equals to the other two wives. Among the four women, Jacob has many, many sons.

Dinah, born much later, is the only girl born to Jacob. It is a blessing when she is born since now the story of the family and the women can be carried on. Dinah discusses the relationships she has with her brothers and her mothers. She is given privileges earlier than most girls because her mothers love her so much and are so eager to turn her to womanhood.

The title of the book, the red tent, reveals to a special tent in their camps dedicated to menstruating women or women in child birth (hence the tent being "red" with blood). Men were not allowed in this tent. It is in this tent where the women bond the strongest and Dinah is told many of these family secrets that she passes onto the reader.

Certain scenes in the novel (or within the red tent) were quite graphic. Dinah tells harrowing details of child birth, animal fornication, first sexual encounters, and a first-menstruation ritual to turn a girl into a woman. I don't consider myself a prude by any means, but I felt borderline awkward reading those scenes and envisioning them actually occurring in the past.

Anyway, moving on to more adventurous and engaging scenes, the reader moves to Dinah's maturation. She enters the city (which is told to be cruel and bad), yet Dinah is curious. While in the city, she meets a young man who turns out to be the prince. He asks for her to move in with him, and she does. Before marriage, they have sex, and now Dinah cannot become a good bride with a good bride price for any other man. The positive thing is that Dinah and the prince are in love. The king goes to Jacob with a fair bride price, yet Jacob and his sons believe that Dinah has been stolen and raped. When the king returns a second time with more money, Jacob insults him by refusing the money and instead offering that all of the men within the palace become circumcised. The prince agrees, for he will do anything to be with Dinah.

The dark or "red" scene within the novel (SPOILER COMING...) is when Dinah discovers her soon-to-be-husband slashed to death in their bed at the hand of her two brothers. Everyone else in their path was murdered. They take Dinah back to their tents where she is too angry to live there and returns to the city. The prince's mother is kind enough to let her stay with them, despite the havoc caused by her brothers, and she bears the prince's son. The prince's mother raises the son as her own and names him despite Dinah's wishes. Dinah is more like a servant to her son than a mother, though the son does know that Dinah is his birth mother and that his father is deceased.

As Dinah ages in the city, she becomes a well-respected midwife who helps women deliver babies. Women from all around call to her to help them give birth. This gains Dinah respect in the city. Her son ages and travels which makes Dinah sad. Later on in her life, she is approached by a man who eventually seeks her as his bride after two years. Dinah, feeling that she could never love again after the prince, discovers that she can. Years later, she discovers that her younger brother Joseph is now the prime minister of Egypt. Dinah, her husband, and Joseph return to Jacob's tents to see their father die. The story of Dinah is known throughout the tents among the women, but the brothers have soon forgotten her, and they do not recognize her upon her arrival. It is at these tents that the reader learns what happens to the other characters in the family to give closure to their stories.

As a reader, I was very angry at the part where Dinah's happiness is stripped from her by her family. I don't know if I can fully blame the men for destroying and ruining parts of Dinah's life. Perhaps they truly felt that she was stolen and raped and needed to do what they did in order to restore power and honor to the family name. Maybe they were truly protecting her. It also seemed that they were aware of Dinah's happiness (since Bilhah came to visit Dinah in the city and spread the news throughout the tents), so why would they deny her that happiness? It was very frustrating, and it made me angry to see such violence for terrible reasons. To ruin someone's life over manly pride is disgusting, and it was hard to read through.

End of spoiler...

What I did not know, because I am not an avidly religious person, is that this novel is a retelling of a minor character in the Bible. Anita Diamant, the author, wrote this on her website on this very point:

"The Red Tent retells the story of Dinah, which is found in the Biblical book of Genesis, Chapter 34. This episode, usually known as the 'Rape of Dinah' has been a difficult passage for bible readers for centuries because of the murderous behavior of Jacob's sons. In Genesis, Dinah does not say a single word; what happens to her is recounted and characterized as rape by her brothers. In my retelling of the story, Dinah finds her voice. The Red Tent is told entirely from her perspective and the point of view of the women around her."

I think it's a pretty interesting idea to take a very small story and blow it up into something bigger in order to promote more understanding or closure. Who knows how far or close this story comes to the truth with its embellishment, but it brings up conversation between those who truly care about the Bible and its teachings.

Was it the most intriguing and exciting book I've ever read? No. Was it thought-provoking? Yes. I often found myself comparing rituals and customs from the past to now, and it's interesting to see which customs have stuck and which ones are considered silly. I would make faces at rituals or customs that seem odd to me, but I bet there are a lot of things that my culture does that would seem odd to other cultures. It's just interesting to see how people lived a long time ago and think if you could handle such a life. It's interesting to see the transformation.

In any event, those interested in historical fiction and religion would be deeply invested in this novel. I find it would connect more with a female audience, but it certainly is not only for women. The strong bonds of women are certainly a strong thread that is woven throughout this novel, yet I don't see why men couldn't be fascinated with these tellings, thoughts, and feelings the same way that a woman would.

To me, it was a mediocre read, yet here I am blogging about it. So, that must say something.

What do you think of The Red Tent?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

House Rules

I've heard a lot of talk about Jodi Picoult's newest novel, House Rules. I found myself to be particularly interested in this novel because of its subject matter: Aspberger's Syndrome. I was interested to see how she presented the characters and what conflicts they would encounter (besides the obvious conflict of living with the disability). However, like many of her novels, I found myself hooked to the story and connected to the characters. This, among others of hers, is another good title to recommend.

Picoult, one again, writes from multiple character perspectives. I thought this would be considerably challenging since one of the characters has Aspberger's Syndrome, a milder form of Autism. Picoult must have done much research to not only understand the disoder but to accurately speak from their point of view. I would find this to be very challenging. It's one thing to understand what Aspberger's is, know the behaviors, and interact with those with it, but I couldn't imagine writing from their perspective. I'm not saying this in a negative way at all. I'm simply presenting the idea that she is very talented to convey something that is so mysterious, cryptic, and misunderstood by so many in this country.

Like most of her novels do, Picoult brings about controversial or misunderstood topics to the forefront and makes people aware of it. She makes people take a stance on the issue and/or discuss it with a larger group of people. Autism has growing awareness, yet it's not something that everybody is very familiar with. It's something that people are aware of if it directly effects them. Otherwise, it can be some distant term that isn't generally understood. Autism itself comes with its controversy as well. Many people speculate as to its causes, be it from mercury poisoning in shots or a general biological disorder. Mothers swear it comes from shots and that gluten-free diets are a sure way to stave off the side effects. But, the medical world is slow to jump on this bandwagon. This, I am sure, is one reason that Picoult wrote about this subject. Her novel is causing more discussion and perhaps is bringing more people and communities to become cognizant of Autism and discuss the disorder and its controversies.

But, I digress. Back to the novel itself.

I liked that the novel included a character with Aspberger's Syndrome, but that wasn't what the entire book was about. A common trait among those with Aspberger's is an obsession with a specific topic. The character in House Rules, Jacob, has a fixation with crime and forensics. He sees crime scenes almost as a puzzle that he must solve. He studies old cases, detectives, and crime shows to become an "expert" on the subject. Like many with Aspberger's, Jacob is brilliant, and he is like a savant in his abilities to fit the pieces together.

The central conflict of the novel revolves around Jacob's fascination. It will eventually lead him to trouble. He shows up at crime scenes, hoping to help solve them. His mother gave him a police radio which helps him arrive at these scenes. But, Jacob does not have social graces granted to your average person. He does not understand that this may come off as creepy or suspicious. He has a lot of characteristics that a guilty criminal might have as well: he can't look in people's eyes, he has nervous twitches, he can't hold a normal conversation, he focuses the conversation solely around himself, etc. The police department becomes aware of who he is once he starts "crashing in" on crime scenes.

Meanwhile, Jacob is taking social skills lessons with a college student named Jess. Jess has a boyfriend named Mark who Jacob completely despises. Jacob, even though he is disgusted by most sexual encounters, finds himself attracted to Jess and asks her on a date in front of Mark at a pizza shop, at one of their sessions. Jacob does not understand how offensive this is (part of his lack of social understanding). Mark gets very angry, yells, and storms out of the pizza shop. Jess is so angry at Jacob, especially since he continues to ask her out once this has occurred, she tells him to "get lost," and she storms out. Jacob knows that he can't "get lost," since he takes language very literally, and decides that he will still go to their next session.

Jacob lives at home with his mother, Emma, and his younger brother, Theo. Their father ran off, understanding that his life would be significantly different with a child with Aspberger's. The interesting thing is that he is somewhere on the spectrum himself.

The main conflict truly arrives when Jess goes missing. It is later discovered that she is murdered. When they discover her body, Jess is wrapped in Jacob's childhood quilt. Emma calls the police station with this information, and Jacob is questioned by Rich Matson, lead detective. Jacob does not lie. He admits that he was there and moved her body, so he becomes the leading suspect in the case. Throughout the novel, the reader wonders if he did in fact commit the crime. Evidence goes both ways, and Jacob's cryptic language makes the reader question whether he is capable to commit such a crime. The reader does not find out until the very end what the truth is.

Once Jacob is put into jail as a suspect, Emma finds a local attorney, Oliver Bond, who has just passed his BAR exam. He is very young and inexperienced. He is not really sure how to be a lawyer, but tries to pretend that he knows. Emma does not have a lot of money to pay him anyway, so they are both kind of winging the experience. Oliver calls for a suppression hearing since Jacob was not truly granted his Miranda Rights. They have to prove that he truly did not understand that what he said could incriminate him. The court decides that evidence used during that crucial interview with Rich could not be used. Jacob (since he was deteriorating in jail) can stay at home under house arrest.

The rest, or most, of the novel takes place in court during the trial. I am finding that many of Picoult's novels take place in court as they use a legal means to sort out these controversial topics she brings up. As the trial unfolds, Emma and Oliver get closer and closer, eventually developing a sexual and romantic relationship.

Theo, the younger brother, takes all of this very hard. In his perspective, we learn how troubling it is for him to deal with having a brother who others call "retarded." He is a loner because of his association with his brother. He knows that he will eventually have to take care of his brother, and this scares him. He feels that his life has always been controlled by his brother and his needs. Jacob always comes first, and Theo always comes second because his needs are less.

Because Theo is dealing with this hard material, he lashes out in other ways. He breaks into local homes and hangs out in their houses, trying to see what it feels like to be normal and live in a "normal" house. He steals materials to see if people will notice. He takes games and iPods and other expensive gifts that his family cannot afford. During the trial, Theo hops a plane to California to go see his father who abandoned the family when Theo was an infant. Emma is forced to fly out there, even with the little money they have, and this is when their father discovers Jacob's murder trial. He eventually comes out there with them to be there during the trial.

The end was intense... SPOILER ALERT...

It is finally revealed that Jacob did not commit the murder. Even though Jacob takes the stand, he never tells what really happened. He never says that he didn't do it. This makes no sense to me, but I will move on. When the jury is deliberating, the truth comes out when Theo is opening his birthday presents. Jacob never gives presents, but he gives Theo a stuffed animal with something tucked inside. An iPod is inside, and Jess's name is etched into the back. Jacob says something like, "Didn't you want this? Isn't that why you were there?" It is then revealed that Theo was at Jess's house the day of her murder. He was spying on her in the shower. She saw him, panicked, slipped and fell. She knocked her head on the sink's edge and bled to death. Scared shitless, Theo runs away. Jacob arrives at the scene, realizes a house rule (always protect and care for your brother), so he cleans up the mess, moves the body, and creates a fake crime scene. Jacob did not kill her. The death was accidental.

The ending isn't 100% clear. Throughout the novel, Jacob describes past crime cases that were solved, like Ted Bundy's story for example. I thought it was clever to end the novel with this new case, Jacob's case. Jacob tells it from the future and how people saw the case after its conclusion. Apparently this new evidence was brought to the court, and I am assuming that Jacob was aquitted of the charges. This case makes forensic history along with the other stories that Jacob told all along. Hm.

Even though I kept reading to find out what happened, I was very frustrated that the truth didn't come out sooner. There were so many instances where the truth should have come out, but it never did. If I was in the story, I don't see why I wouldn't sit down with him and ask him every detail that I possibly could, even if I didn't want to hear the answer. Maybe you don't want to believe that your son, brother, or friend committed murder, but wouldn't it kill you to know the truth? Why would you want to believe a lie? Don't be selfish. I wouldn't want to be naive. It bothered me that no one ever asked him these crucial questions, and it only came about after the fact in a random situation. Very frustrating!!


However, this novel was a great way to learn about Aspberger's and Autism if you don't know too much about it. I think it's better than reading a nonfiction piece that reads like a textbook. Not only do you get to hear Jacob's perspective and see his behaviors, you get to hear how it's like to live with someone with this disorder, from the family members, but you also hear from experts during the trial to provide more thorough, "scientific" information. Overall, it was well-rounded in that respect.

The story was engaging, and the characters were dynamic, as always. Especially if you are intested in forensics, this novel would hook you. I enjoyed reading about random forensic facts and crime cases. Some were eerie, but they were a nice break from the trial at times.

Picoult writes another good one again. I would put this as one of her best, along with The Pact and Nineteen Minutes (and maybe The Tenth Circle). So far, those are my favorites of hers.

So, what do you think of House Rules?