At first I expected to write a rather scathing post about Rachel Kadish's The Weight of Ink
, and then I got like 2/3 of the way through and realized that there were in fact some things I really liked about the book to counteract the things that made me stare into the camera like I was on the office, and THEN I got to the end and -
-- ok let me backtrack. The Weight of Ink
is a serious literary novel about a pair of academics (the favorite protagonists of serious literary novels) who have discovered a treasure trove of 17th-century documents in a staircase written by Ester Velasquez, a Portuguese Jewish woman who Confounded All Tradition by acting as scribe for a London rabbi. The book proceeds to interweave Ester's story and POV with that of the academics as they discover various bits of evidence pointing to the things that Rachel Kadish will then later explain to us in Ester's narrative sections.
Ester's story is .... it's mostly good? I think I have come around to largely thinking it's good. It starts to pick up around the middle of the book, when Ester starts writing letters to various famous philosophers under fake male names so that she can Engage in the Discourse.
[ACADEMIC A: [Ester's fake name] did not get much attention during his career or make any important allies -
ACADEMIC B: Oh, why is that?
ACADEMIC A: Well, basically, he was very rude to everyone he wrote to.
I will admit I was charmed.]
Ester's most important relationships are with the rabbi -- a good and wise man who respects her intellect and cannot support the ways in which she chooses to use it -- and with Rivka, the rabbi's housekeeper, a Polish Jew who acts as Ester's foil in a number of significant ways, not all of them obvious or expected. Both of these dynamics have an interesting and complicated tension to them that goes well beyond the standard 'I, A Misunderstood Woman Ahead Of My Time.'
Also there is another young upper-class Jewish woman who is rebellious in wildly different ways than Ester is; a pair of brothers who are both interested in marrying Ester for profoundly different reasons, neither of which is true love; and, for a brief period of time, a love interest. The love interest is hilariously lacking in personality and equally hilariously irrelevant to Ester's life on the whole, and mostly exists to trigger a series of philosophical musings related to desire about which Ester can fight with Spinoza. I guess The Distant Shadow Of Spinoza is also one of Ester's most significant relationships.
Anyway, I appreciate the weighting of these relationships, and the way in which the narrative emphasis shifted from what I expected, and especially all the relationships that were not grounded in romance, but in other forms of love and duty and resentment and complicated emotional bonds.
And ... then there's our modern academics.
Helen Watt is a stiff-necked elderly British specialist in Jewish history, who is on the verge of retirement due to Parkinson's disease. Helen has a Tragic Backstory: in her youth, she spent a month as a volunteer in Israel in the 1950s and had a summer fling. Sorry, let me rephrase: she met an Israeli soldier who was the love! of her life!! (For a month.)
The pivotal scene in their romance occurs when Helen shows up for one of their few actual shared off days to have a date, and he hands her a copy of The History of the Jewish People and then LEAVES and REFUSES TO COME BACK until she's READ IT COVER TO COVER. This is the only way she can understand our endless, endless oppression!
(Meanwhile, he lurks outside, and periodically brings her snacks. THIS SCENE IS SOMEHOW NOT MEANT TO BE COMIC.)
Alas, Young Helen in her frailty decides it's all a LITTLE too much for her, and subsequently regrets her lost love until the end of her days. But, inspired by the world's weirdest date, she decides to dedicate her life to the study of Jewish history, so I guess ... that's all right .....?
She is assisted in her endeavors by Aaron, the third POV character. Aaron is an insufferable American Jewish Ph.D. student. He is working on a dissertation about Shakespeare and the Jews, for which he has no evidence, so instead he spends the entire book obsessing over an unattainable Cool Girl. (And she is so textbook Cool Girl! The coolest girl of all! A girl who poses nude for artists who capture a certain something
about her, a girl who's just realer
than other girls, THE MAGICAL IDEAL.) He sends her incredibly long, pompous emails after a one-night stand which took place on an evening in which "he waited until Marisa was on her second beer -- he kept track from a distance, biding his time. When he approached at last, his own untouched beer dangling casually in his hand --" OKAY AARON, THANKS AND GOODBYE, YOU AND I ARE DONE.
But alas, we are not done with Aaron, we are not done with Aaron at all. Eventually Aaron does come to realize that he's insufferable! A significant part of this realization comes when he visits an archive and meets a shy, demure archivist who's bad at flirting, and is suddenly struck by how desperately sad it is that people like her may never find love because they're all overlooked by assholes like him. If only people like him paid attention to people like her, their lives might be fulfilling and the world would be better! ALAS.
(There are two other archivists in the book, The Interchangeable Patricias. They have a few moments of heroically rising to Helen's aid but mostly their role is to stand as icily competent, largely humorless glowering gate-guards over the sacred text, because of course.)
So basically everything about the modern sections was nonsense to me. (Also, I got mad every time they found a document that explained to them a Piece of the Mystery in a way that was way too narratively convenient. 'Oh, look, Ester doodled out her real name and her fake name next to each other and added a note that said 'HEY IT'S ALL MY NAMES!' Isn't that handy!')
Still, Ester's story in and of itself was good and compelling and interesting, and grudgingly I became invested in it despite myself...( And then spoilers! )