Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

February's book club selection for my local book club - the Spineless Book Club here in Chicago - was the Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. If that name sounds familiar, it's because she is the writer behind that paragon of pagan entertainment Practical Magic. According to all the press for the book, it took Hoffman 5 years to write it. The time spent researching, planning, writing, and editing the novel absolutely shows. The publisher calls this book Hoffman's masterpiece. While I've not read many of Hoffman's other books, I would be inclined to agree.

The official synopsis for the book is as follows:

In 70 CE, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on a mountain in the Judean, desert, Masada. Only two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman weaves a spellbinding tale of four extraordinary bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom comes to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by their own witness. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power. The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets — about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and who they love.

Within the first few pages, I had already fallen deeply in love with Hoffman's poetic, imaginative writing style. She uses the tools of a poet to create dense, very real scenes, as well as incredibly full characters. To give you a full review, let's take a look at our usual 5 torches.


  • Technicals - Easily yes. This woman knows her way around some syntax! I could not be more pleased with the way her book is written. I will say that if there is any drawback to the technicalities of the book, it is that there aren't really any chapters. There are parts to the book, one for the each of the four main characters. So, saying, "I'll just read a chapter tonight," is a bit impossible. However, it's not really a problem, and it doesn't take away from the book. It can be a bit daunting, however, because it's not really reading-during-lunch-break friendly, as you will probably have to put it down in the middle of a fascinating scene. 
  • Obtuse/Obscure - This book is dense. It is not a light, summertime, airy read. You really have to commit some time to the book. Honestly, I realized that I needed some good, solid hours in the day to read it - and that I couldn't just stick chunks of it in a quick lunch break or coffee run. However, it is not difficult to read or understand. It isn't clouded with a lot of unexplained technical terms, and it's not a dry storyline. You want to commit those hours a day to reading the stories of these four women. You want to go on this journey with them. 
  • Characters - This story is all about the characters. It is less about the scenery, which is full and real. It's less about the era and setting, which is real and ever-present. The real heart of this story is the reality of the four women at the center of this tale. You feel for Yael, despite her anti-heroine storyline. You want to rage alongside the lioness/matriarch Revka in her quest for revenge and redemption. You ride next to Aziza as she balances the instincts of her prior life as a male warrior and her new role as daughter and lover. You learn the secrets of magic from Shirah, and, greater still, the secrets of motherhood and of being a woman cursed by love. The characters in this tome are real; they're people. You feel that you've met them, dined with them, loved them, and perhaps have lost them. 
  • Memorable - This book's story is so true, so urgent, and so powerful that it stays with you. Haunting is an understatement. It is a book by which you will begin to compare other books. I must say that despite its length - 512 pages - and its depth of prose, you don't come away from it feeling like you need a brain break. I've read large, historical books before (this one is soundly in the genre of historical fiction) and felt I needed to run to the nearest newsstand to purchase Cosmo and take every sex quiz in there just to give my brain a rest. You know, those times when you've overworked your Smart Cortex to the point that you go on a Jersey Shore/America's Next Top Model/Project Runway marathon for a week? Yeah... Didn't need to do that here. 
  • Story - The story is fresh and original, despite having taken place a few thousand years ago. It is modern in its view of women, despite their lacking a place in the society of the day. It is new and real in the way it candidly looks at the ancient Jewish people that weren't as monotheistic as modern day adherents would like to tout. Some of your favorite ancient deities make an appearance, and you get an incredible sense that people - despite the era - are still people. I must say, the story of Shirah, the curse that she is under, feels very familiar, very Hoffman. You get the sense that the Owens family of her Practical Magic world possibly descended from her lineage. You wonder if Hoffman's witches are a bit cookie cutter, but that is a fear easily remedied by Shirah's interactions and world choices. 
The Bottom Line: The Dovekeepers is a rich, dense, character-drive epic that infuses her characteristic real-magic with a story about women, about love, about meeting your fate, and what it means to live fully.

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book, and the other Spineless Book Clubbers agreed. Seriously, we are still talking about it amongst ourselves. 

Buy this book. You will love it. In fact, buy the book for a friend and read it together. It is something you'll want to have a conversation about with a friend or group. 

Have YOU read the Dovekeepers? Are you going to? 

Also, if you're in the Chicago area and are looking for a book club, consider the Spineless Book Club! We're on Facebook and Goodreads.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

3 comments:

  1. I am reading this book right now, and just have to say, it is easily one of the best I have ever read. It is so gripping and tragic! It has been easy to compare the Romans to the GOP..lol.. thanks for turning me on..

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  2. I am reading this now...nearly finished...disappointed I soon will not have these fine characters to tell me their sorrows. Personally, I wanted to hug and comfort them. How grateful I was to read passages in which they comforted one another in their great levels of grief. This has so touched my heart on many levels.
    Contrary to Fire Lyte, a nice quiet book such as an old copy of a Gladys Taber book sounds calming when I choose my immediate next book(!). Phew! :-)

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  3. I have enjoyed other Hoffman works and I like history, even historical fiction. But this is awful. I kept at it hoping there would be something redeeming but no luck. The relentlessly breathless, quasi biblical, sometimes nonsensical narrative just wore me out.

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