My friend L., who doesn't have an lj account and somehow gets mentioned here a lot, recommended Maggie Anton's series to me. I'm glad she did!
They will be a series of three books of historical fiction, concerning the lives of the daughters of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi. Rashi was one of the best known Jewish sages of the medieval period and his commentaries on Tanakh and Talmud are still considered authoritative by many. Rashi lived in 11th century France, in the Champagne district, and worked as a vintner (rabbis at the time were not paid for their work). He also founded a famous yeshiva and scholars came from much of Jewish Europe to study with him.
Little is known about Rashi's daughters, although their names and those of their husbands and children are recorded (several of Rashi's grandsons are also famous scholars). Rashi had no sons, and legend has it that his daughters were scholars in their own right and that he taught them Talmud at a time when women were not generally permitted to know Talmud. Anton clearly was fascinated by that idea and conceived of a series of three novels, each one focusing on one of the daughters. I've read the first and begun the second and the third will come out next year.
Anton appears to have thoroughly researched the life of Jews - and others - in France in the 11th century and tells an atmospheric story peopled with characters who are both appealing and recognizable, while clearly not moderns. She does not make the common historical fiction error of giving her characters a twentieth century North American outlook, somehow transplanted onto another time and place. On the contrary, she makes the reader feel completely immersed in their world and it's only our own sensibilities that lead us to make connections and contrasts with our own Weltanschauung.
The Jews of Troyes, in France, are in some ways recognizable. They have the same holy texts, the same holidays, many of the same rituals. Still, they have huge differences with modern Jewry, regardless of affiliation (or not). They are a deeply superstitious people, with no distinction in their minds whatsoever between what we would consider theology and what we would dismiss as magic. And their lives have a very different rhythm, and different span.
Anton does not at all limit herself to the religious lives of her characters. We follow them in all their activities, seeing wine-making and midwifery and sheep-farming and slavery and the lives of the nobility, as glimpsed by the characters. It's a richly textured account. Central to it is Joheved, Rashi's oldest daughter, the child who initially asks to learn with her father. Her mother's fear that the learning will make her unmarriageable since no man will want a wife more learned than he is is countered by her father's assurances that he will find her a scholar superior to her for a husband.
Anton is faithful to her characters and their milieu in her treatment of gender. Although Rashi and his daughters step outside of gender roles in some ways, they have clearly internalized them in the most overarching ways and are in no way challenging male dominance. For example, Rashi explains carefully to Joheved that women and slaves are exempt from positive time bound mitzvot since a slave's time belongs to his master and a woman's time belongs to her husband.
In the novel, though, gender roles have a complex and nuanced feel to them. One of the issues discussed in the book (due to Rashi's wife's inability to produce a son for him) is the belief that a woman's orgasm preceding her husband's during intercourse results in the birth of a son. Rashi blames himself for being unable to give his wife sexual satisfaction and consequently finding himself deprived of sons. The cluster of beliefs is interesting in the emphasis on a husband providing his wife with sexual pleasure (and on Rashi's lamenting his inability) but her pleasure is not an end in itself but a means to have superior male children! So even in attentiveness to a woman's sexual needs the inferiority of women is clearly stated.
That ambiguity about women is also reflected in ambiguity and ambivalence about sex. There's a fair amount of discussion of sex in the book (and a couple of sex scenes, as well). The characters consistently refer to sexual desire (even within a holy marriage) as "yetzer ha ra" - the inclination to do evil. OTOH, they also refer to sex during marriage as "the holy deed" and when a character goes through a period of impotence he is thought to have been "bound up by a demon." I liked the way she portrays the complexity of sexual attitudes.
Joheved is, indeed, betrothed to one of her father's students and their relationship through betrothal and marriage is much of the focus of the book. Some Orthodox reviewers have objected to the explicit descriptions of sex that are found a couple of times (most notably Joheved's wedding night) in the text, saying that such descriptions make what would otherwise have been a book of great interest to Orthodox Jewish women unsuitable for them to read.
I object to the wedding night sex for another reason: I think it's unrealistic. It's the one place where I feel that the author's sensibilities and semi-modern outlook led her to break out of the realism that is the hallmark of most of the book. She clearly very much wanted to have a wonderful, ecstatic, first sexual experience for her characters and have it in the context of complete restraint prior to marriage. Here's what she said in an interview:
"Q. Why did you choose to include explicit sex scenes in the book?
A. I don't like historical fiction that closes the door on its
characters, so I resolved to follow Joheved no matter what she was
doing: eating, praying, using the privy, studying, dealing with
menstruation, preparing a corpse for burial, and making love. Joheved
is a young woman, newly married and hoping to get pregnant, so
naturally sex is an important part of her life. I wrote the book I
wanted to read, which is why the Talmud scenes are in there as well
(and there's a lot more Talmud than sex). But most important—so many
books, movies, and TV shows today are saturated with casual hook-up
sex that you'd never know how good sex could/should be between a
loving couple in a sacred relationship, which is what Judaism teaches.
Many parents have told me that Joheved's wedding night is the kind of
sex scene they want their teenagers to read."
And it may well be what some parents want their kids to think about sex, but it's not what sex is really like imo. She tries to finesse it a bit by having the couple kiss a few times in advance of their wedding night, so they aren't entirely unfamiliar with each other's bodies and physicality. Rashi catches them the first time they kiss, and at first he's really angry but then he thinks about it and thinks it might make for a happier sexual relationship once they are married, so he asks Meir if he can control himself and not go beyond kissing. Meir assures his prospective FIL that he can, and then Rashi tells him that they still have to sneak kisses because he wouldn't want his daughter to know he's condoning this. That whole plot element just seemed weird to me, like it was the author's idea that making out beforehand - even with what seems like a complete lack of knowledge not only of sexual behavior but even of their own bodies - would lead to "ecstasy" on the wedding night.
The whole episode seemed profoundly unrealistic to me. Which is not to say that I think that their lack of knowledge would necessarily lead to a lousy sex life, but I think it would have been much more realistic (and a lot more hot, although I don't think that's the main point) if they had had some missteps and really had to learn about each other's bodies and how to turn each other and themselves on. Neither of them had even masturbated before and they both come the first time they have sex, which consists of kissing, him touching her breasts, and then penile/vaginal intercourse? The majority of women can't come with just PVI even with a lot of practice, and it seems not very credible that it would work first try. I think the whole scenario is so unlikely to me that it would be the author's responsibility if she wants to write the wedding night that way to make that very remote possibility seem real. On the contrary, it seems like the author's mindset is that that kind of restraint actually results in good first time sex (or at least she'd like teenagers to think that so they don't have sex), so she doesn't even try to make it realistic.
Other than the romanticized unreality of Joheved's wedding night sexual encounters, I found the book profoundly realistic and really enjoyed that aspect of it. At times I felt like she put in too many aspects of life in that time and place, as if Anton couldn't bear not to use whatever Fun Facts to Know and Tell she found in her research. So, credulity got threatened a bit when just about anything that happened in 11th century France happened to her characters in particular. The bubbly wine now called Champagne was invented in the Champagne district at that time? So Rashi invented it. A noblewoman had a difficult birth? It's the Jewish midwife in her book who saves mother and baby. I firmly believe an author should research and learn much more than ever shows up directly in the fiction. The knowledge will inform the fiction without that.
Still, those are minor quibbles. The first Rashi's Daughters book is an engrossing read, with interesting characters, a lively plot, and a fascinating setting. I felt like I learned a lot about all manner of things, but never felt like I was being lectured. I hate historical fiction where the author seems to be saying things like "Because my characters live in X place and time, they believe Y, unlike us." Anton just drops you into her characters' lives and their heads, and you learn as you enjoy the story.
The second book has a slashy theme, I'm told. I just began it this morning and I'm really enjoying it as well.